I’m excited about this post.
You guys know I’m all about confessing up to my mistakes and sharing the stupid things I’ve done over the years.
Well, at the start of the year, I did an AMA on Nomadic Matt’s forum and one of the questions I was asked was about whether I had any blogging regrets. Of course, I managed to reel off a whole list of things I’ve done wrong over the years!
After having so much fun thinking about the stupid things I’ve done in travel blogging, I couldn’t resist turning it into an entire blog post.
Here are the 12 biggest mistakes I’ve made as a travel blogger. You’ll hopefully either learn something from them or wonder how I ever managed to find success!
I Used to Publish Entirely Blank Blog Posts
Let’s start with what was probably the most ridiculous thing I used to do.
Back when I first created Never Ending Footsteps, I had a real issue with procrastination. It would take me weeks to publish a single blog post because I was forever being distracted by something online.
One day, I published a half-written blog post by mistake.
And, well, shit. Suddenly, my terrible first draft was out there in the world for public consumption and I was horrified. In a fit of terror, I edited the hell out of my post and got it into a readable state in under half an hour. It was the fastest I had ever produced something, and it gave me a fantastic idea.
Why not do that for all of my future posts?
That way, I’d be able to easily slide into a state of panic-induced productivity and get my articles written and edited in a matter of hours rather than weeks.
So that’s exactly what I did.
I would publish an entirely blank blog post, then I would write one sentence and update the post. Edit that sentence, then update the post. Write another sentence, update the post. Screw my subscribers, right? At the time, I had no idea that anyone who was subscribed by email or RSS was being sent completely blank blog posts or — even worse — ones containing two badly-written sentences.
It’s worth mentioning I probably received less than five visitors a day at this point, but still.
I can’t believe I used to do this.
I Thought Affiliate Marketing Was Only for Enormous Sites
One of my biggest mistakes as a travel blogger was holding the belief that affiliate marketing was only for the successful.
Ugh, this was so dumb.
Affiliate sales comprise three-quarters of my income these days, and I’ve been breaking income records every couple of months since transitioning to a more passive income.
Not a blogger and have no idea what an affiliate sale is? Basically, if I link to a product on, for example, Amazon and you decide to click the link and buy the item, I make a commission on the sale at no extra cost to you.
I don’t think I placed a single one of these affiliate links on my site during the first four years of its life. I’d write packing list posts, link to Amazon, and not bother finding an affiliate link because I didn’t think I’d make any money from it. I’d recommend insurance companies and hostels, and not include any affiliate links.
I was both horrified and delighted, then, when I decided to throw four or five accommodation affiliate links into my most popular posts one day and began making $500 a month from them. WHY HAD I NEVER TRIED THIS BEFORE?
It was a game-changer.
If I could change just one thing in my blogging career, it would have been focusing on affiliate income from the beginning.
I Would Pride Myself On Working Too Much
If you compare my first year of travel blogging to the most recent one, they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum.
When I first started running Never Ending Footsteps, 90-hour weeks were the norm. I would take pride in the fact that I was forever working and rarely seeing the places I visited. I think it stemmed from knowing that some readers might make the assumption that bloggers are always on vacation and lazy, are mega rich, or being funded by their parents. I resented their beliefs, so decided to spent all day every day proving them wrong.
I was the definition of working hard, not smart.
Because back in those early days, I was working 90 hours a week and making around $1,000 a month. That’s an hourly rate of $2.70!
At the time, it was fine for me. I was bumming around inexpensive Southeast Asia, where the cost of living was low and I was making more than I was spending.
Once I started heading further afield to Western Europe, North America, Oceania? I was dip-dip-dipping into my savings.
That was my life for several years before I decided to get smart and research passive income.
As I said above, it was a game changer. I should have started earlier.
So these days? These days, I could take a year offline and most likely continue to make the same amount as I do now. These days, I average 20 hours of work a week, and don’t work at all whenever I’m travelling.
And yes, it does sound good to be true, and I am constantly terrified it’s all going to disappear without warning.
I Was a Massive Dork During My First Comped Activity
I’d been travelling for four months when I decided to start asking companies for free hostel stays and activities.
One of the first companies I worked with was Singapore Zoo, and I was so excited about it. I would get to visit a place I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing, but it would be free!!!!!!!
I had no idea what I was doing, though, or how these travel blogging comps worked. Oh god, I was unprofessional and awkward.
After half an hour of wandering around the entrance in terror, I shuffled up to the information desk.
Me: Hi! I think you might have a ticket here for me.
Me: Uh, I’m a travel blogger. Lauren Juliff? I emailed someone about a free pass?
Her: Let me check…
Her: Okay, perfect. That’s great. Can you fill in your details here? *hands me a book filled with business cards*
Her: Do you have a card as well?
Her: A business card?
Me: Oh no, I don’t. Will my passport work? *hands it to her*
Her: No… We need a business card so that we can find your coverage at a later date.
Me: Oh. Um, no. I don’t have any of those.
Me: I… forgot to bring them with me?
Oh god, oh god, oh god.
Is it any wonder I decided to just start paying for everything myself a few months later?
I Wasn’t Comfortable Charging for My Work
For an embarrassingly long period time, every time someone emailed to ask for my advertising or freelance rates, I deleted the email.
I found it stressful to ask people for money — even if they wanted me to! — and panicked over whether I was overcharging or undercharging. I found it easier to not deal with it at all.
Someone wanted me write a guest post for free? I’d do it! Someone wanted to pay me for my time? Delete!
It took a lot of hard work to start valuing my time and writing, and it was helped by landing a book deal.
Knowing that something I had written was in bookstores, and that it had only been touched lightly by an editor’s red pen, changed everything. Especially when so many of my reviews mentioned how well it was written.
Damn straight I’m a good writer. Damn straight I should be paid for my work.
I Believed the Bigger Your Images the Better
For someone who’s knowledgeable when it comes to technology, I made some shocking mistakes in the early days.
I used to believe the bigger your images the better when it came to blogging. I would upload photos to my site that were 5000 pixels in width, display them at 500 pixels in the post, and think they’d look so much prettier that way.
That’s already a horrible way to run a blog, but don’t worry: it gets worse.
At one point, I had read somewhere that images in a blog should be no bigger than 1 MB in size.
Rather than shrinking the width of my images down to the correct size, I instead started saving them at the lowest quality possible.
For years, I was editing 5000 px images in Photoshop, saving them at an image quality of 3, then uploading the enormous, blurry result to my site.
Let’s just say it took a long time to re-upload all of my photos once I realised this was not, in fact, how to convince your readers that you’re a talented photographer.
I Tried to Fit In and It Made Me Boring
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 six 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 shown a tour group my vagina 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’d feel 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 after I made the change — I started receiving emails daily 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 was finally standing out in the increasingly-crowded world of travel blogging.
But for a very long time, I was just another travel blogger writing about how nice it is in Chiang Mai, and does the world really need another blog about that?
I Sold So Many Text Links
Here’s a confession: for the first three years of my travels, the vast majority of my income came from selling text links, which is a shady way to run a site.
It was easy money.
Companies would email me with a badly-written article, I’d publish it on my site while using a plugin to hide it from my homepage, and make $250 for two minutes work. It felt like the best way ever to make money — I barely had to do anything, and because the posts were hidden, none of you guys would ever even know they existed.
It was easy money but it’s a risky game to play.
It’s all about deceiving the almighty Google. You’re essentially being paid to boost companies’ search engine rankings, and if the people at Google discovered you’re doing so, they would penalise your site and take away all of your traffic.
So as easy as the money was, it was a nerve-wracking game to play, and I hated every shady second of it.
The second I was making enough money to cover my expenses with alternative income sources, I stopped selling links, and my site has been going from strength to strength ever since. I’m even on track to start making six figures a year from entirely passive income. I just wish I’d made that a priority sooner, rather than coasting on the text link money for years.
Want to change your life with travel blogging but don’t know where to start? Check out my detailed guide to starting a travel blog. It covers everything you need to know about building a site, attracting an audience, and starting to make money without selling out or resorting to lame tactics.
I Hated Spending Money on My Site
When I first started blogging, I was all about saving money. I didn’t spend a cent on my site.
I used a free theme, I got a graphic designer friend to create me a header, I had a friend host my site for free. It was great to save money, but I had no idea how much it was holding me back.
I switched hosts to WP Engine and my search traffic tripled. I spent money on a beautiful theme and my overall traffic doubled. I started paying for social media scheduling tools and gained so much time back.
I shouldn’t have been so afraid to invest in my site. I’ve found that in doing so, I’ve always made far more money than I spent.
I Was a Douche on Instagram
Confession: I’ve never liked Instagram.
In fact, I hated it from the moment it launched.
I thought it was boring and narcissistic, I despised the ugly filters everyone used to put on their photos, and I had no desire to even install it let alone use it.
So I ignored it.
But suddenly, everyone was all about it. Everyone was telling me about the amazing opportunities they were gaining from it and how much money they were making. I reluctantly jumped on board, but I still didn’t like it.
I knew the only way I’d find success through Instagram was if I announced here I was going to work on my account, because public accountability is my jam.
So that’s what I did.
Except, I still hated spending time on Instagram. I was trying to focus on it while having a mental health breakdown, and the last thing I wanted to do was dance around in floaty dresses, pretending I was living a dream life of travel.
Follow. Unfollow. Follow. Unfollow.
Yeah, I jumped all over that Instagram game. But me being me, I tried to find a more ethical way to do it. I followed people manually, then I’d scroll through my news feed for hours each day unfollowing any of those people who then put up a photo that wasn’t amazing. I’d reason with myself that it was okay because I was actually looking at the accounts rather than using bots. That I wasn’t unfollowing people who didn’t follow me back. It wasn’t okay, though.
It just made me feel like a tool.
And I still hated Instagram.
And you know what’s funniest about this? I was so desperate to catch up with travel blogging friends and gain tens of thousands of followers, but there would have been very little benefit to it. I don’t work with brands; I don’t even accept free products, let alone comped trips; I don’t publish sponsored posts on my social media accounts. Even if I had managed to grow a massive audience and become super successful, it wasn’t like it was going to translate into anything financial. I was just doing it because everyone was so far ahead of me and I didn’t want to be left behind.
These days, I still feel meh when it comes to Instagram, but I’m starting to like it more. I’m only following people who inspire me, and I’m no longer panicking about how many likes I get or whether a photo fits with my *theme*. Once I reminded myself that I wasn’t trying to impress companies and that I was now sharing photos so my readers can follow along on my travels, something shifted, and I was no longer so stressed about it all.
What lessons did I learn here?
If something makes you feel gross, don’t do it.
Don’t jump on things just because everyone else is.
You’re not going to fail if you’re not everywhere.
I Let My Anxiety Hold Me Back
I once turned down an opportunity to be featured in The New York Times because they wanted to interview me by phone.
The Travel Channel wanted to have me on one of their shows as a travel expert, but my anxiety had me so nervous that when they tried to skype with me, I closed my laptop.
Bloomberg wanted to interview me and I deleted the email because, in case you hadn’t figured it out already, I hate phones.
The list goes on.
For a long time, I told myself that running my business like this was all cool. I thought that it was one of the huge advantages to being self-employed. That I didn’t have to do anything I wanted to; that I could down any opportunities that would make me nervous.
I was ignoring the biggest lesson I’d learned from all my years of travel: leaving your comfort zone is how you overcome your fears.
I’m better these days. I’ll still rarely agree to podcast interviews because I’ve found few benefits to doing them, but I’ll always jump on a call if I think it’ll benefit my business. It turns out it’s not that scary after all.
But man, all of that avoidance undoubtedly held me back and slowed my success.
I Didn’t Treat My Travel Blog Like a Business
It was tough for me to start thinking of my travel blog as a business.
For many, many years, I ran this site by essentially working for free to entertain my readers. Everything I posted was a dramatic incident post. Nothing was particularly useful for if you were visiting the place I was writing about. Every destination post had a focus, and that was me screwing up somehow.
I was pulling those 90-hour weeks I mentioned above, writing many thousands of words, and not making any money from it.
I wrote only about what my regular readers wanted to read, which I thought were incidents.
The problem was, 80% of my traffic was coming from Google, so most of my audience weren’t even regular readers. They were people who were coming to a post about Phayao and finding an overly-dramatic story of how I struggled to walk down some steps at a temple.
I think I have a good mix of posts now. I share an incidents once a month. I still write about my travels in narrative form, but make sure to include advice on where to stay, where to eat, what to expect, and how to get around.
I don’t regret being so incident-focused because it landed me a book deal, but I should have found more of a balance. I likely would have still caught the attention of a publisher if I’d had a 70-30 balance rather than 100% incidents all the time.
Over the past year, I’ve taken even more steps to get this site feeling like a business. After years of being self-employed, Never Ending Footsteps is now a limited company. I have an accountant and a lawyer. A business plan. Accounting software to track my profit, rather than an excel spreadsheet that I’d only fill in whenever I had to file a tax return.
It feels good to be taking things seriously now.
I Worried Far Too Much About My Haters
I can’t believe I used to let them affect me.
When someone managed to hack into my site and changed all of the photos of me into photos of piles of shit, I literally almost stopped travelling and booked a flight home.
When somebody on Reddit called me a terrorist, I sobbed for days on end.
I could sit here and recite every single negative comment I’ve received during those first few years of running my site.
Not only did I let the haters hurt me, but I let them play with my mind, too.
I’d believe them.
I’d sit for days and wonder to myself, what if they’re right? I’d think about breaking up with Dave when someone told me he must have the patience of a saint to be able to put up with someone as awful as me. I’d research nearby therapists when someone told me I was seriously psychotic and belonged in an asylum.
This year, though? I can’t think of a single negative thing that’s been said about me.
I guess once you’ve had several years of negative comments, you just stop caring about them. Maybe it’s something that’s come with age, too. Either way, I stopped reading the comments on any articles or forum threads about me. I don’t read reviews of my book. I delete any awful emails or comments on here without even properly digesting them. I don’t let it bother me anymore.
I regret letting it affect me for so long. Especially because it meant that I was often ignoring the people who have positive things to say about me to obsess over the negatives.