I don’t think I’ve ever written a post about travel blogging before, but today, on the night of my big book launch, feels like the right time.
Because for the past few years, there have been many, many times when I’ve felt like an enormous failure. I allowed people to convince me I’d been making one mistake after another. Time and time again, everyone told me I was doing everything wrong.
I started a travel blog with lofty dreams of becoming The Biggest and Best Blogger in the World. I was going to crush it. I was going to post every single day, have a site packed with helpful resources and advice, and be known worldwide as a travel expert. I wanted to write travel guides and author guidebooks and build my audience to five hundred million loyal readers.
Let’s face it: one look at my incidents page tells you I’m not the type of person you should be taking travel advice from. I’ve been scammed half a dozen times over the past four years; I’ve been robbed multiple times, too. I’ve fallen into rice paddies and been attacked by monkeys and been abandoned at borders and thrown up over market stalls and been caught up in tsunamis and sat next to a dead woman and eaten a cockroach and…
I’ve been incident-ridden from the day I was born, so I don’t know why I thought travel would be any different.
The best decision I ever made was to stop pretending to be something I wasn’t.
Every time I dished out travel advice on Never Ending Footsteps, I felt like a fraud. I’d offer tips on how to make friends while travelling when in reality, I’d struggled to connect with anyone on the road.
I decided to stop faking it and I started writing from the heart. I wrote honestly and authentically about the ups and downs of life on the road. I rebranded myself as a walking disaster rather than a solo female long-term budget traveller on a round-the-world trip. And you guys responded so much more to me after I made the change — I started receiving daily emails rather than monthly; you asked me for tips on dealing with anxiety; you told me you could relate to my stories; and you told me you thought my honesty was refreshing. I finally felt like I was standing out in the increasingly-crowded world of travel blogging.
In the back of my mind, I was terrified I was making a mistake. Every time I’d read a post from an successful travel blogger listing everything that had got them to where they were, I’d begin to berate myself. Because I was doing nothing they recommended.
Privately, travel blogging friends confessed they thought I was doing it wrong. The problem with placing yourself as the anti-travel expert, they told me, is that nobody will ever trust your advice and recommendations — so how can you make money? If you recommend a backpack using an affiliate link, will anyone ever purchase it through your link? Or will they think you don’t know what you’re talking about because you’re, as you say, a walking disaster?
I was told I was screwing myself over by doing something different and I would struggle to make money as a result.
The decision to stop taking press trips and sponsored activities/accommodation was tough. After all, one of the biggest perks of travel blogging is getting to travel the world for free.
As soon as I reached a monthly audience of something like 5,000 visitors, I began pitching my way across every country I visited. I took a cooking class in Seoul; tried surfing in Bali; flew in a hot air balloon over Lake Bled; and even had a full two month’s worth of accommodation in New Zealand covered. I was living the life I’d always dreamed of.
Until I wasn’t.
After six months of trudging down the sponsored travel trail, I stopped. I had never really felt fully comfortable doing it and had always struggled to remain objective. I hated being obligated to write about places where nothing interesting had happened. I felt awkward sharing my travel expenses in monthly summaries and disclosing I hadn’t paid for half of the things I was mentioning, like I was no longer able to show how affordable travel could be.
I decided to take a strict no sponsored travel stance and I’ve been travelling on my own dime for three years and counting. I would rather pay to do whatever I want so I can live my life on my terms.
It hasn’t been easy. I’ve turned down offers for nights in insane resorts in the Maldives and anything up to a twelve-week-long luxury safari through Africa that was worth several tens of thousands of dollars. The version of me from several years ago would have screamed at me to take them, but I wanted to stand out from the crowd.
Travel bloggers I spoke to about it thought I was overthinking it. Because, as most of them told me, my readers don’t actually care that much if I take some sponsored stuff here and there — they’ll understand that I have to make a living somehow. And you guys probably would. But some of you might have not. And some of you might have despised reading about an activity I didn’t pay for.
I’m a contrarian, so just like I decided to start writing about how not to travel the world, I opted to pay for everything myself.
It was hard not to be concerned. Because if I wasn’t someone who people would look to for advice, minimising a potential income stream, and if I wasn’t saving money by taking comps, how was I going to fund my travels and find success?
There are thousands of travel blogging articles floating around online, all of them sharing the same recipes for success. Post frequently and regularly. Write big, helpful resource guides. Start pitching companies as soon as you have a decent sized audience. Join Travel Blog Success. Focus on SEO. Hashtag, hashtag, hashtag.
I used to devour those posts and spend months worrying about how I wasn’t doing anything listed. I averaged one post a week, my posts were about my latest screw ups, I wasn’t taking advantage of the free trips I was being offered, I thought Travel Blog Success was too expensive, I had no idea what SEO was, and hashtags make me sad. Was I the worst travel blogger in the world? Could I ever find success through taking a different path?
And then I was contacted by an editor at a major publishing house. Then I was contacted by a second. I hadn’t even been looking for a book deal.
Suddenly, I realised I’d been setting myself up for success all along.
I had created a brand that revolved around being a travelling disaster — something nobody else was doing. My site had a strong message: travel can transform your life, even if you have no idea what you’re doing, have never eaten rice, and suffer from extreme anxiety. It was an interesting story, and it was one that hadn’t been published before.
Not only that, but the longer I worked on blogging differently to everyone else, the more my audience grew. It’s the reader emails thanking me for sharing the bad times as well as the good, and for giving an honest look at the reality of living a life like this. It’s the people who tell me they love that I pay for everything myself and show how affordable travel can be. It’s that I now get hundreds of emails a week since deciding to make a change. When I was fighting to fit in, it was more like one.
It’s scary to look at what everyone in an industry is doing and decide to do the opposite, having no idea whether it will pay off. I’m proof that it can. You don’t have to follow the crowd, especially when the crowd consists of hundreds of thousands of blogs. Find a way to do things differently, and when you’re wondering if you’re making a big mistake, you may just receive an email that changes your life.
Today, How Not to Travel the World goes live.
I’m a published author.
And everyone told me I was doing it wrong.