The 10 Most Important Lessons I’ve Learned from 6 Years, 7 Months and 11 Days of Travel Blogging

I’ve been pulling the levers and switches behind the scenes at Vagabondish.com for more than six and a half years. Today – May 21, 2013 – marks my 2,418th day of travel blogging.

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in that time. Like, a lot. (Bah ”¦ this Twitter thing’ll never catch on!) But thankfully it’s taught me a lot too. While I can’t tell you everything I’ve learned (because I’ve forgotten much of it), here are the ten most important things I think every travel blogger should know ”¦

Drunken sculpture at winery in South Australia
Travel bloggings are hard © Mike Richard

#1: This Ain’t No ”˜4-Hour Work Week’: Blogging Is F**king Hard Work

When people ask me, “So whaddaya do for work?” That’s a tough one because travel blogging is just like any other you’re-your-own-boss-now gig. You are your website’s sales team, accounting department, writer, editor, photographer (usually), secretary, social media strategist, customer service department, “corporate” planner, web designer and developer (almost always). You wear every hat in the company.

To fully run a travel blog is insanely hard work. It will often occupy every waking second of your days in some fashion. Even when you’re not writing or photographing, you’ll be thinking about writing and photographing. I work much harder now than I ever did at my former corporate gig. Some days are a long, hard slog – almost mind-numbingly so. I’ve wanted to quit many times. But remember: most people do quit, which just leaves room for the remaining 1% of us to thrive!

(All that being said, I wouldn’t return to my old desk job for five times the money!)

#2: You Can’t Go It Alone: It’s All About Connections

One of the most important steps to being successful online … is getting offline. Step out from behind the keyboard and connect at real world events, conferences, meetups, and trade shows as often as possible.

TBEX and the just recently ended TBU are obvious examples, but there are fast becoming others. For local meetups in your area, check out the aptly named Meetup.com as well as Eventbrite. Or research professional travel industry groups on Facebook and Linkedin to coordinate corresponding offline events.

Five minutes spent connecting offline with others in the industry is more valuable and productive than countless e-mails, Twitter replies, and Skype calls.

Travel blogger, Mike Richard, solo hiking in South Dakota
Nooooo! Don’t go it alone! © Mike Richard

#3: Take Your Site Seriously (Stop Treating It Like a Hobby)

You’re probably gunning to travel the world indefinitely and/or become location independent, right? If you’d like for your blog to serve as the ladder to get you there, start treating it like a real business. Outline a business plan (here’s a good place to start) with definable goals and step-by-step strategies to achieve them.

Take account of your accounting. Even if it’s just a simple balance sheet to understand where you’re spending money and where you’re earning it. It’s the only way to visualize what’s working and what isn’t.

Create an editorial and/or social media calendar that clearly outlines what tasks you’ll do on which days and how much time you’ll spend doing them. Stick to it as best you can.

#4: Do Unto Others: You Get What You Give

Remember “A rising tide lifts all boats”? Be cooperative, not competitive, by helping promote other websites and blogs. Remember: they are not your competition, but your colleagues.

Porn and LOL cat videos notwithstanding, travel is still the single largest online niche and (god willing) will continue to be for the foreseeable future. There’s plenty of space here for all of us. Share advertisers, press trip leads, web development and SEO tips, etc. with other bloggers and kindly ask that they do the same.


JD says: “YAAAAY, I’m a unique flower!” © Mike Richard

#5: Have Something Unique to Say: You Are Your Brand

Have a voice – a unique voice. With regard to the actual *blogging* aspect of running a travel blog, this is the single most important and deciding factor of your success.

Be funny, quirky, angry (kidding, Dave), self-effacing, witty, gregarious, or just ridiculous … anything that conveys your personality authentically. Don’t be another “me-too” voice among the thousands of blogs just launched this hour. Be unique and people will take notice.

(Tip: maintain your voice consistently across every one of your social media channels)

#6: Get Real! You’re Not Going to Get Rich (Sorry)

(My mommy says that I should toot my own horn more often, so what the hell ”¦) Vagabondish is, in many ways, a successful travel blog. We average a few hundred thousand visitors each month and have been fortunate enough to connect with a sizable social media following. But it’s not likely to ever make me financially “rich”. And your travel blog probably won’t do the same for you either, no matter how successful you are.

[cue sad Hulk music ...]

Sorry, I’m not trying to piss in your Cheerios or dissuade you from starting your own travel blog. But if your primary measure of travel blogging success is your bank account, you’re destined to fail by your own standards anyway. However, if success for you is working a job that you love – a job that funds your long-term travel dreams and frees you from the “normal” 9-to-5 – then travel blogging might just be for you.

#7: Ditch Your Template! (”¦ and Invest in a Custom Website Design)

You know what they say about first impressions. It’s true: a good, unique, eye-popping design for your website is worth every penny. Well, if you’re not a designer, that’s OK. But, for the love of god, don’t attempt to design your own site. The “I bought a WordPress template and reswizzled it myself!” days of being good enough are over. Advertisers, PR firms, tourism boards, et. al. have caught on.

So pay a professional to design it for you. It will likely be the largest financial investment you make in your site. But it will also be the most important and continue paying for itself for years to come.

It surprises people to learn that Vagabondish is primarily a one-man show. I’m the only full-time employee, yet the design often leads advertisers and press to believe that it’s a full-blown team (“Dear sir, can you please connect me to the head of your marketing department?”). I credit this almost entirely to the professional design.

Another surprising fact: in more than six years of blogging, I’ve never once had to actively seek out, approach, or cold call new advertisers. Again, I attribute much of that to the design as well.

Travel Blogger, Mike Richard, in Cape Town, South Africa
This is me, focusing … on the long-term

#8: Focus on the Long Term: Building a Following

With an insanely detailed level of web and social media metrics available, it’s easy to disappear down the rabbit hole of daily (or hourly) analytics-checking. Don’t do that. Seriously ”¦ knock it off! It’ll drive you crazy, especially when you’re just getting started. And it’s completely unproductive.

Until you’re tracking more than, say, 5,000 monthly uniques, don’t bother pouring over the minutia of Google Analytics (install it, but don’t pay attention to it).

Instead, focus on long-term growth: building a loyal following on your blog, on social media, and at offline events. It’s important not to confuse “big traffic” with “having a big following”. Building a true loyal following/audience means convincing your readers that your site is worth coming back. Over time (remember: long term!), this converts to steady, sustainable traffic numbers, which in turn converts to advertising dollars.

And to do all that, simply focus on the other 9 tips in this post!


Travel blogger and arrogant, douchebag extraordinaire, Mike Richard

#9: Be Confident (but Not Arrogant)

Be confident in your writing, your voice, your site, and ultimately yourself. Act big, act like an expert, like an influential player in the online travel “sphere” and people will take notice.

It goes without saying that there’s a distinct line between arrogance and confidence. Of course you need the knowledge to back it up.

But, when you’re confident, you’re much more likely to ”¦

#10: Just Ask

This is the single best piece of advice I can give you. Don’t worry whether you have the traffic, the Twitter followers, or the right Klout score. Almost anyone can land press trips, new advertisers, guest posts from other bloggers, etc. But you won’t know unless you ask.

The first month after I quit my day job (with only a fraction of Vagabondish’s current audience), I pitched three providers regarding potential press trips. And landed all three almost immediately. Mind you, I was convinced that I wouldn’t land any of them, but decided to ask anyway. And you should too.

Ask for more advertising dollars than you think you can get; ask for that all-expense paid media trip to the North Pole; ask a “six-figure” blogger friend if you can guest post for them (or they for you); ask to be a panelist at a travel blogging conference and share your personal area of expertise with the community; ask for help with designing your website (and offer to exchange content, links, advertising space, etc. in return).

The bottom line is: ask!

Bloggers are a tight-knit, friendly group of folks for the most part. Well, the good ones are anyway — the ones you actually want to associate with — because they recognize that we are all colleagues, not competition.

The worst thing you’ll get is ”¦ no response at all. But even then, you’re probably on that person’s radar.

The second worst thing? They reply with a polite, “No thanks.” And then you’re definitely on their radar. Plus they actually took the time to e-mail you back which means that, at the very least, they likely considered your offer before declining.

Whether you’re just a brand new travel blogger or a seasoned vet, what lessons have you learned the hard way? Let me know in the comments below!

41 Responses

  1. Sam D @Travellingking

    Great article Mike.
    All so very true.
    Being a new bloigger I have found it a little difficult as people tend to think that they have SEO secrets and dont want to share items or help each other, its sad. I’m happy to help where I can, at this stage its not much but I try anyway!

    Reply
  2. Dave

    I agree with everything you said. Of course you were one of the first bloggers I can recall from 2007, so I’m glad you’ve stuck with it. The travel blogosphere is better off having Vagabondish in the mix.

    PS – I’ve always envied your site design’s uniqueness!

    Reply
  3. Kelsey

    I just wanted to say THANK YOU for being honest and actually sharing tips and advice for beginner bloggers out there.. These days there are so many blogs that keep everything to themselves and don’t want to see others succeed in something that brings them enjoyment and a sense of happiness.

    I’m currently in the “hobby blogging” stage I’d say. And it’s great to see what other important tips you’ve shared with us. Hopefully I can progress onwards and upwards from here! Can’t thank you enough for some handy info!

    http://www.theblondediary.com

    X

    Reply
    • Mike Richard
      Mike Richard

      @Kelsey: You’re very welcome! The travel blogging “industry” (as it were) has grown a little more competitive in the last few years as many people try to turn their blogs into businesses. But I think you might be surprised if you ask around how many are still willing to help with SEO, design tips, etc.!

      Feel free to e-mail me (mike@vaga …) with any questions!

      Reply
  4. Ken Takel

    Awesome Post! Thank you! I totally thought this was a professional website with a full writing staff.

    Now I have to do my homework!

    Reply
    • Mike Richard
      Mike Richard

      Thanks, Ken!

      Don’t worry: this is definitely *not* a professional website. Well … I’m not professional at all. The Vagabondish freelancers on the other hand = totally professional. =)

      Reply
  5. Claudia

    Hi, loved your post! I´m that person that “for the love of god, don’t attempt to design your own site”! It´s so hard to get rid of my beloved old template! Where do I learn more about SEO? Thanks, Claudia @pequenoviajante

    Reply
  6. Lucila

    Great advices. Tks for sharing it. Sometimes I also feel like giving up…then things like this text make me recharge my batteries and my hope ;)
    Long life to travel blogs! Yeah!!

    Reply
  7. CheToba

    Great, I need something like this when I thought stop to write my travel blog because Google doesn’t love me any more :-( Thanks Mike. Regards from Argentina

    Reply
  8. Fishing4Deals

    I am trying to have fun with my blog and highlight the offbeat and quirky travel deals. I love getting feedback from my readers and the ensuing conversations.

    Reply
  9. Charli l Wanderlusters

    Hi Mike, thanks for the post. As a noob blogger and historically none existant social media user it’s brilliant to get some insight into how you’ve built Vagabondish up from the ground.

    We’ve been blogging for almost 5 months now and are starting to realise what a jam packed schedule is involved. Like you mention I am turning into a bit of a one stop shop and – other than coding which I leave to my geeky other half – have learnt the basics of the various skills needed to blog. I’ve a long way to go. Thanks again for the encouragement.

    Reply
    • Mike Richard
      Mike Richard

      @Charli: Welcome to the fray! =P

      I come from a web design/development background so I was fortunate to have that nailed before I started blogging. Thank god, because I know it’s a struggle if you’re not a technically minded/savvy person.

      Reply
  10. Bo

    Great post! Just retweeted it. It’s so true that blogging takes much more time than a regular job. There are thousands of travel bloggers out there. Readers also have many options other than reading blogs. They go to Facebook, Twitter, etc, they use smart phones. It’s not like ten years ago when blogging is that popular.

    Reply
    • Mike Richard
      Mike Richard

      @Bo: You’re absolutely right! But I’m happy with it being hard work – it weeds out those who are just doing it for money =)

      Reply
  11. Adam - Tropical Nomad

    Great advice,
    Although I am only a few months in to my travel blogging journey, I love it and think you have hit the nail on the head with these points!

    Reply
  12. jmayel & sacha

    Great advice, definitely useful for newer blogs like ours. One year in and things and starting to take off for us slowly and this advice is helps to keep our thoughts grounded!

    Reply
  13. Melanie@TravelsWithTwo

    Dude: preach it. I wish this post had existed 5 years ago, when I started out! Thank you for including a link to that Problogger post (I’d completely forgotten it, and it’s brilliant) and for using the word “reswizzled.”

    Also? I still feel that photo of you at the Southern Ocean Lodge is my finest work of portraiture. ;)

    Reply
  14. Bambi

    Excellent tips! Love that there are other people who “get” that life isn’t completely about financial success!

    Reply
  15. Francoise

    Brilliant advice and so entertainingly written, too!

    And you even included a photo taken at the top of Signal Hill in Cape Town, yay!!!! And maybe even the boat pic is from shark diving in Gansbaai? I know you like South Africa and we love having you here so be sure to return soon.

    Reply
  16. Nick - Goats On The Road

    Mike, Great post!
    This is exactly what I was hoping you would write one day. I found it very useful and I’m just now starting to take your advice “just ask”. Probably about 6 months late but oh well.

    We don’t want to be rich with blogging, but rich for us is funding a $50/day travel budget. What more could one ask for?

    Ps. I love the picture of the “Travel blogger and arrogant, douchebag extraordinaire”… hilarious.

    Reply
  17. Robert Schrader

    I love this list, although I think #7 is ironic. Although the fundamentals of your site design are good, it is a bit too busy as far as the design conventions of 2013 are concerned.

    Reply
  18. Mike Richard
    Mike Richard

    @Melanie: Hollah!

    I’d completely forgotten about that pic from SOL. It’s still among my favorite from that trip. It fully captures my douchery =)

    Reply
  19. Mike Richard
    Mike Richard

    @Robert: Thanks – glad you dig it!

    Design is of course somewhat subjective. To be honest, I’ve never designed for what’s hot or “conventional” for the current year. With rare exceptions, no designer should. Fundamentals of design rarely change – form follows function and all.

    I couldn’t disagree more that the design is busy. As an ad-supported site, every element within the design is necessary and clearly structured.

    Reply
  20. Tonya Prater

    I’ve learned that you need to be passionate about the topic you write about. Otherwise you’ll never make it on those days when you wake up and wonder why on earth you bother.

    I really appreciated this post and your honesty.

    I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to attend TBEX this year but I did attend a smaller travel conference last year. The bloggers were so helpful that I was blown away- and encouraged. For the first time I began to seriously (the keyword here) think about blogging as a business. I’ve been inching towards that goal, slowly, but steadily.

    I love #10. I spent 3 years afraid to ask for anything and once I finally got over that fear, it opened a whole new world of help, connections and possibilities.

    Reply
  21. Gaurav Bhan Bhatnagar

    Thank you for the honesty. The travel bloggers who do not share considering others as their competitors have left me disappointed in past, but, i guess they are the other 99% and god bless them :)

    The tip that I learnt while travel blogging is – “When you approach someone for help/ partnership, go as a learner and authentically acknowledge that person for his work. If you go with an attitude of – I am here as your savior… it won’t work”

    Reply
  22. Pretraveller

    Thanks for a great article. As an early stage travel blogger I have had a steep learning curve so far with more to come. Have started to receive enquiries from advertisers so I now need to decide whether to transition to a proper business or to maintain Pretraveller as a hobby! Let the next learning curve move forwards…

    Reply
  23. Ryan @Treksplorer

    Awesome post, Mike. I just attended my first TBEX and fully agree with your statement “Almost anyone can land press trips, new advertisers, guest posts from other bloggers, etc.” I always figured it was only the “big” guys that would get any attention, but the conference showed me that most seem to be looking for uniqueness and an ability to tell a story in a compelling way. “Just ask” might be the be advice I’ve heard in a long while!

    Reply
  24. Thalia Arzoglou

    I enjoyed reading this a lot! Thank you for all this advise which came at the best possible moment! I’m insanely stressed because I’m about to launch my website and I’ve made a huge investment in terms of money and time! I absorbed every word of your article and can’t thank you enough! I was happy to notice that some of the lessons I’ve already learned but I still have so much to learn! Here are some observations from the other side of the line from where you stand… the starting line!
    http://urbanbilingual.wordpress.com/2013/06/07/the-choices-i-had-to-make/

    Reply
  25. lorraine

    Probably one of the most useful articles I have read on travel blogging! Thanks for the tips. Now on to finding some creative people to guest blog on my site.

    Reply
  26. Stacey

    Some great advice! Thanks for sending me the link! :)

    Us newbies need all of the advice we can get – think I might do something about that website design. I know yours gives you authority.

    The first time I came to your website, I thought, “wow, here’s the big guys!” and didn’t think you’d be as approachable as you are, let alone that you are just one person.

    You’ve done well in your time blogging!

    Reply

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