Starting a Travel Blog: A No-BS Guide (Setup + Growth + Income)

May 8, 2018

I love being a travel blogger. What once started as just a creative outlet has become a full-time job and a location-independent lifestyle. Every day I get to do things I intensely enjoy doing.

But it wasn’t easy to get to this point. There is a lot of hype around travel blogging, and I want to temper that hype just a bit. This isn’t going to be one of those quit your life and follow your dreams motivational speeches; if you want to start a travel blog for yourself, I want to give you some realistic and honest advice.

A blog is fun and easy to do as a hobby, but there’ll be a ton of challenges involved if you want to do it more seriously.

I often get asked questions about blogging, invited for coffee for someone to pick my brains, or to give talks at events — so I know this is a topic many people want to know about. That’s why I thought maybe it’s time to finally compile an in-depth post on the subject. I do have a little personal stake in this, as a bit later I’ll be recommending a blog hosting company that I’m affiliated with (they’re good!). I don’t have a course to sell though, so I can maybe share a little more than usual.

 

Reasons to start a travel blog

Why would you want to start a travel blog? Well, here are some of the most common reasons, roughly in order of difficulty:

1. Just for fun!

Hey, maybe you just want to blog about your travels for friends and family. Cool beans! If this is you, maybe you’ll just want to skip straight to my step-by-step guide to setting up your blog. You could be up and running today! In fact, it takes only about 10 minutes. (Skip to: setting up a blog.)

2. To learn new skills

Another great reason to have a blog is quite simply to become better at things. I learned more than I could have ever dreamed of with Indie Traveller (as well as a previous blog I had). Not only was I able to rapidly acquire new skills, but I also made many new friends and colleagues, and even got my foot in the door for some amazing jobs over the years.

What can blogging specifically teach you? For starters, it’s an excellent way to get into writing, social media management, photography, marketing, and entrepreneurship — among so many other things.

3. To travel for free

Yep, the rumors are true. As a travel blogger you can often stay for free in hotels, get free tours, or even get entire trips paid for by tourism bureaus or marketing agencies — all in exchange for publicity, of course.

Getting freebies was never a key motivation behind my blog (I’ve only done it a few times), but it can certainly be an interesting goal. Do keep in mind that you always have to be transparent to your audience, and that freebies may sound better than they are (there are always expectations for professionalism and exposure). Still, you can get offered some pretty crazy stuff, particularly if you have a knack for personal branding and social media.

Your blog actually doesn’t need that much traffic to receive complimentary experiences; I’ve heard of other bloggers pitching successfully with audiences of 15,000-ish visitors a month. If that sounds a like a lot, this is still a relatively small blog.

4. To build a portfolio

Your blog can also be a perfect launching pad for a freelance or consulting career. What better way to get gigs in travel writing, social media management, or WordPress consulting than having an amazing public showcase of your work? The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and your travel blog can be a very convincing pudding for prospective clients.

Some bloggers even leverage their blog to promote secondary businesses, such as selling travel photography courses, or taking people on group tours to their favorite destinations.

5. To earn a direct income

And finally, yes… it is possible to earn a living directly from a travel blog. I’m doing it right now! But I want to caution you that it’s incredibly difficult to get there, and I don’t recommend counting on this sort of outcome. So-called passive income streams can take years to build up, and usually require a very high traffic volume that only a few blogs can reach. It’s great if you’re among the top 100 or so of travel blogs, but anywhere below that is going to be pretty tough.

Travel blogs are a bit like Pokemon in that they can transform from their awkward cocoon stage into potentially amazing income streams. But most blogs are also like Magikarps — those stupid flopping fish that you hope will become a powerful all-destroying dragon one day, but probably never do. The majority of blogs do not reach this stage.

Then again, even if it’s not your blog itself that ultimately becomes that ass-kicking dragon, maybe it’ll be you. Not everything has to be immediately for-profit, and plenty of travel bloggers do it just for fun, for the skills, or for the XP.

And if you don’t quite know what your goal is yet, that’s okay too.

 

Is it too late to start a travel blog?

It’s not too late to start a travel blog — many successful ones right now are just a year or two old. But what IS true though is that the pioneering days of travel blogging are over. 5 years ago you could still succeed by just posting average content… but travel blogging has matured, and everyone’s had to step up their game. There’s more competition and so quality matters a lot more these days. This is an effect seen not just in travel blogging but across the web: ‘easy content’ is a thing of the past. That’s why it can help a lot to specialize your blog in some way (i.e. focusing on a niche, but more on that later).

While there are more players in the field these days, it’s fortunately still a pretty even playing field. The web doesn’t care much if you’re a huge publisher (like Lonely Planet or The Culture Trip) or simply a traveler or couple with something interesting to share.

That said, keep your expectations in check! Many blogs fizzle out because their writers thought they’d be rolling in riches or could gain huge followings quickly. It’s not like that at all. Keep in mind there are already thousands of general topic travel blogs out there. So having a particular angle, either one you already have now or one you’ll develop over time, can help you a lot. Go into it because you think it’ll be fun, not because it’s your genius career move that will definitely pay off.

Just to be clear: quitting your job to become a travel blogger is, broadly speaking, an awful idea. But doing a travel blog on the side to see where it goes? That can lead to some interesting things down the line.

Regardless of your ultimate ambitions, I strongly recommend taking the time to set up your blog in a way that’s professional from the start — as this will save you a lot of headaches as your blog grows and evolves.

How to set up a blog (the right way!)

Setting up your blog doesn’t require any technical know-how. In fact, you can do it in about 10 minutes. But be warned, it’s possible to set up your blog in ways that can become a real pain in the neck later.

There are some free blogging platforms out there like WordPress.com and Blogger.com where you only have to sign up for an account. Seems easy, but I advise against using these — at least, unless you have no ambitions beyond just writing for your family and friends.

You see, these platforms don’t let you add anything that’s commercial, so you can’t ever make any money from your blog. They also don’t let you expand your blog’s functionality using plugins or themes, which really comes to bite you once you want to customize your blog and truly make it your own.

In the early days of Indie Traveller I was locked into the wrong blogging platform myself. Migrating all my content to a self-hosted WordPress.org install (this is different from the free account you can get at WordPress.COM) was an arduous technical nightmare. Trust me, you want to get this right from the start.

But fret not, here’s a quick and simple guide to setting up your blog the right way…

 

Step 1. Sign up for a hosting plan

A hosting company takes care of serving your pages to users. And having your own hosted space lets you do with it whatever you want. A paid host doesn’t care if you put ads on your blog, or customize it with plugins, or anything like that.

It’s kind of like having your own plot of land on the interwebs. You can build your own house on it. And then you can add more rooms later, or even tear it down and build a bigger more awesome house on top of the original foundation. You can’t do that with just a rental space (like some of those free blogging platforms out there).

There are many different hosting companies. I like to recommend Bluehost, which I have an affiliate partnership with. If you use my link to sign up, you get a special offer for Indie Traveller readers of just $3.95 a month.

domain-name

There are plenty of hosts out there, but I’ve happily used Bluehost myself for many years. These days, Indie Traveller gets so much traffic that I’ve had to move it to a dedicated VPS at Linode.com. That’s advanced stuff, and I work with a freelance server administrator to manage it these days. But if you’re just starting out, then Bluehost is totally awesome and super easy to manage just by yourself. (It actually took me 5 years to outgrow my Bluehost account, and these days I still use it for running all my mailing list software.)

Simply go to Bluehost and sign up for their basic plan, which is good enough for any new blog. You’ll get unlimited storage and bandwidth, unlimited email addresses, and you can host an unlimited number of sites.

Bluehost also gives you your own domain name for free (or at least, for the first year). Having your own domain is essential… I’ll explain why in a minute.

Sign up for hosting »

 

Step 2. Install WordPress

All signed up? Great!

Now that you have a hosting account, let’s install on it your own local copy of WordPress.

WordPress is the most commonly used software for managing a blog. The HUGE advantage of using this industry standard is that pretty much any other service or plug-in can work with it. There are also thousands of visual themes, tutorials, and other resources available for it.

Once you’ve signed up to Bluehost, you’ll eventually reach your account’s control panel. Don’t be intimidated by the number of menu options here. Just find the Website section, and select ‘Install WordPress’. Select your domain name, and simply press “install”.

10-cpanel-home

The Bluehost control panel

12-wordpress-install

Setting up WordPress

The set-up might take about 5 minutes. Time to make yourself a cup of tea or tell a travel story to your cat. Come back to your computer and WordPress should be all set up now.

 

Step 3. Sign in to your very own blog!

Okay, there isn’t really a step 3. You’re pretty much finished now.

Go to www.yourdomainname.com/wp-admin/ and lo and behold, your WordPress admin awaits you.

You might want to go to Appearance > Themes though if you want to change the visual look of your blog. There are lots of nice free themes to choose from. Don’t worry, you can still easily change the theme in the future.

You might also want to go to Settings > General and change the name and the tagline.

Ta-da, your travel blog is now ready!

Later on, you’ll probably want to add an About and Contact page, or enhance your WordPress install with some extra plugins, or maybe switch to a premium theme. But you don’t have to worry too much about this now.

Rest assured, by having a self-hosted WordPress installation, your blog is future-proof and can be expanded and even monetized in the future.

The most important thing to do now is to start creating some content!

 

Why you NEED a domain name

Oh yeah, by the way, it’s super important to have your own domain name. Yes, even if you’re just doing a blog for fun (for now).

Here’s why. Firstly, if you web address looks something like http://mytravelblog.wordpress.com your address will be hard to remember and will look amateurish.

But a bigger problem is that you won’t be building up any so-called Domain Authority. Essentially, when Google sees that you’re posting good content and getting links to your blog from other sites, it’s kind of keeping score in the background. The more authoritative sites it sees linking to you, the more Google believes you’re authoritative as well. But if you are hosted under a shared domain like wordpress.com, all those imaginary ‘points’ that you’re accruing actually go to that domain, which you don’t own.

I’m glad I hosted my blog on indietraveller.co from the start. It meant that everything I did in the early days helped establish domain authority for my blog. This made SEO (Search Engine Optimization) much easier later on. Active domains with many links to them can also become quite valuable and can even be sold or auctioned.

It doesn’t matter too much if your domain is a .com or has some lesser-known extension as people will still find you through Google. All that matters is that you’re a master of your own domain. (No, not in the Seinfeld way…)

As I mentioned earlier, if you sign up at Bluehost you’ll get a free domain name. If you prefer to get your domain elsewhere, I recommend using Hover.com. Avoid GoDaddy as they are spammy and try to upsell you stuff you don’t need.

You can use the widget below to test whether a domain name is available. Be sure to always get one or much of your early efforts could be wasted.

Choosing a name for your blog

Honestly, it’s tough to find a name for a blog that isn’t already taken. It seems like every combination of ‘nomadic’, ‘wandering’, etc. has been used. So you’ll have to get a bit creative!

I recommend considering names that don’t have your own name in it. Personally, I just think it’s nice to have more of a brand name than the name of a person. It simply gives you more flexibility. Maybe you’ll want to share your blog with other authors or develop it into new unexpected directions, so it’s nice to keep those options open.

Then again, don’t listen to me! My blog is called ‘Indie Traveller’, which as far as names go I think is pretty much as dry as cork. Maybe I’ve just been staring at that name for too long, but it feels a little generic. Sometimes I wish I had come up with some astoundingly witty name that shows me to be an unequivocal genius at naming things. But maybe any name is fine really — as long as it’s easy to remember.

I’m happy that I didn’t go with Wandering Marek or anything, though. The name Indie Traveller can be a bit more of an aspirational thing or an ethos — it says something about the way I like to travel, and it isn’t just limited to myself. It’s along those lines that I wanted to choose a name. (It also helped that a domain was available!)

 

What’s a niche (and do you need one?)

There are more travel blogs out there now than there were five or ten years ago. That’s why many experts say the best way to be successful is to find a specific niche. (I went to a travel blogging conference last year, and it was seemingly the only thing anyone talked about!)

All this means is that instead of trying to be a general travel blog covering everything and anything, you try to specialize in some way. It can also mean writing with a more specific target audience in mind.

I definitely agree with this advice! Even though I didn’t choose a specific niche when I started blogging 5 years ago, I think it’s the best path to starting a travel blog today. Applying any kind of focus can give you a huge advantage. And if you’re just doing a blog for fun or as a portfolio thing, it can help you gain more specific (and thus more desirable) skills and expertise.

Here’s why it’s good to have a niche:

  1. More specific search keywords are easier to rank for on Google (especially when you’re starting out)
  2. Having a lot of related and interlinked content keeps readers engaged; they’ll often read more than just one standalone post
  3. It’s easier to become a trusted expert (or an inspirational storyteller) when you’re focused on a particular topic. People can immediately see what you’re all about!
  4. Marketers love targeting. If you have a smaller audience but one that’s clearly interested in a specific thing, then that can be hugely relevant to any commercial partners.

I know a lot of the travel blog advice out there is obsessed with finding a niche. If that seems confusing right now, don’t worry about it too much. This might go against what some of the gurus are saying, but I think you don’t need to know your perfect niche straight away. Telling new bloggers that they should have some kind of genius niche idea from the get-go can have a paralyzing effect, and the truth is that a lot of the successful bloggers discovered their niche over time.

That said, it’s a lot easier these days to become a widely recognized travel blogger for, say, just traveling in Portugal, than for traveling the whole wide world, so keep that in mind.

The hardest part of starting a travel blog is simply to start, so try flexing those writing muscles, and focus on topics you’re passionate about. If you don’t have a niche now, you can get back to that later when you’ve gained some more experience. Over time, you might discover through analytics or reader feedback what you could focus on.

 

Making money with your travel blog

Whenever I tell people I’m a travel blogger, the first question I inevitably get is “how do you make any money?”. So here, in brief, are some of the common methods.

Banner ads. This used to be a pretty awful way to monetize, but it’s had quite a revival in the travel blogging scene recently. Forget about using Google Adsense banners; they’ll barely make you anything. Try to get your blog up to at least 25000 sessions a month and apply to be a partner at Mediavine instead. The pay is good and the people at Mediavine are super helpful.

Affiliate links. These are special links that give you a commission is someone makes a purchase. For example, if you link to your favorite hotel on Booking.com with an affiliate link and someone decides to book there, you get a little kickback. It’s the same with many other products and services. I once wrote an article for Travelbloggersguide.com about how to monetize with affiliate links.

Product sales. Another good way to monetize your blog can be through products that you’ve created yourself. Maybe you could write a book, create a course, or design custom merchandising that you can sell directly to your readers. (Need examples? Jodi at Legal Nomads sells beautiful bags and posters. Matt of Expert Vagabond sells prints of his photography. And many Instagrammers sell their Adobe Lightroom presets enabling others to achieve a similar look.) If you just want to sell one or two products then Gumroad is a pretty awesome payment processor and hosting platform.

Indirect income. As I said earlier though, many bloggers primarily use their blog as a channel to gain indirect benefits — whether that’s free travel experiences, freelance work, writing experience, or maybe one day becoming a brand ambassador (i.e. supported by a sponsor). These monetization methods typically rely more on having quality content and good personal branding than on gaining very large volumes of traffic, so they’re a much more common path to follow.

 

Some final travel blogging tips

Be patient. Finding an audience is not easy at first, but it can be a snowball effect. Getting your first 10 visitors will be waaay more difficult than getting your first 10000. People are accustomed to thinking linearly, so this can be a little counterintuitive. I wrote a little guide to gaining more visitors.

Tighten up your writing. Unlike in print, there are no wordcount limits on the web. That’s nice, but that also makes it easy to get into endless rants and meandering stories. Cutting the fluff and eliminating common travel writing cliches will do wonders for your writing. This post, the 7 Ways To Ruin Your Travel Writing, is a pretty amusing and insightful take on this.

Don’t get too distracted. I think content creation should be your main focus in the beginning. Worrying too much about monetization or SEO or even promoting your work on social media is going to be pretty counterproductive. I’d say you maybe shouldn’t even bother monetizing your blog at all for the first year, as it’s like putting the cart in front of the horse a little. Start with creating stuff and just take satisfaction from having written or made a thing you can share with the world.

Always keep learning. The web is full of amazing resources that let you learn just about anything! You don’t necessarily need to buy a $500+ travel blogging course to figure stuff out. Just get a free 1-month subscription at Fizzle.co (they have some amazing video courses, and you can gobble up a lot of them just in their trial period). Or get some cheap courses during a sale on Udemy. Or simply read free tutorials online for whatever challenge you’re facing. It’s all out there if you dig for it.

P.S. Don’t miss the special offer at Bluehost to get your travel blog started today. (Yep, that’s an affiliate link.)

18 comments

  1. Robert Popescu Reply July 5, 2018 at 6:47 pm

    Thanks for your detailed answer Marek, you just helped me save lots of time. Hope we might meet some day an share experiences!

    All the best and safe travels!

  2. Susannah Reply June 18, 2018 at 3:31 pm

    Thank you for mentioning us in a great monetization post, Marek!
    Mediavine is known for helping online publishers monetize their existing content through digital advertising that doesn’t slow down sites or destroy audience experience. But ads are just the beginning. Our mission is to create sustainable businesses for digital content creators. We are committed to providing education to publishers on a wide variety of topics from social media to SEO and helping them diversify their income streams with our influencer marketing department and other resources (like your post!)
    Our threshold to work with a site is 25k monthly sessions and we’re here to answer any questions at [email protected].
    Thanks again!
    — Susannah at Mediavine

    • Marek Reply June 18, 2018 at 6:18 pm

      Hey Susannah. I can honestly say that Mediavine is the only ad company I’ve truly enjoyed working with. Keep up the great work! 🙂

  3. Robert Popescu Reply June 15, 2018 at 12:00 pm

    Hi Marek,

    Congratulations for the wonderful job your doing!
    I want to thank you for the helpful articles you are writing and ask for an advice regarding starting a travel blog. Do you think Wix is a good alternative to WordPress? and How do you get sponsorship (discount for accommodation), is there a communication strategy that you could share?

    Thank you and hope you’ll have the time to answer,
    Safe travels,
    Robert

    • Marek Reply June 15, 2018 at 12:24 pm

      Hi Robert. I think Wix is great if you want to build e.g. a portfolio or a site for a small business with easy to use tools, and you don’t care that Wix owns your data. I don’t think it’s ideally suited to building a content-driven site or blog though. One of the disadvantages of Wix is that it’s proprietary, whereas WordPress is an open platform with a huge ecosystem around it. You could probably still make it work with Wix, but virtually all major bloggers I know use WordPress – it’s maybe not quite as beginner friendly sometimes (largely depending on what theme you use), but it ultimately offers way more control and flexibility.

      For outreach, focus on answering the question ‘what will they get out of it’ as best as you can. It’s not about you getting the freebie, it’s about them receiving tangible PR or marketing benefit. Just saying ‘you’ll get exposure’ is typically not enough; suggest specific content or social media coverage you can offer them, specify what this includes (is it just a quick mention? or an article with photos? will you link to their site with a do-follow link?), and if possible offer some information on your audience (age, type of traveller). You can try a much simpler pitch if you’re just after a free stay in a hostel or something (as this costs them so little), but for anything more significant you have to make a marketing case.

      Hope this helps!

  4. Ocean Scuba Dive Reply January 2, 2018 at 4:24 pm

    Great post Marek! Thanks so much for putting this together. It will come in handy with my blog writing.

  5. Gavin Chandler Reply September 28, 2017 at 4:50 pm

    Hi Marek,

    I´ve just read a lot of your tips and guidance and firstly, thanks a lot. I´ve been blogging for a couple of years but so inconsistently that it´s more like just a few months. Anyway, I have written more consistently the last month and feel motivated to keep it going. My viewing figures are currently in the low thousands which is actually a huge increase for me! Anyway, I pay for my domain annually and there my page looks slightly more professional in terms of the URL, however I am still using wordpress.com. I don´t use any hosting platform currently. What I want to know essentially, is how much you´d recommend upgrading now, even though I have no monetary interest as far as I know,and transferring all my content over rather than letting the pile get bigger and bigger?! I do want to make a leap from just personal blogging, does upgrading just make things easier IF this happens rather than providing any increase in likelihood of it happening? Sorry if this post is all over the place, I´ve been reading tips for about ten hours straight!

    • Marek Reply September 29, 2017 at 4:50 pm

      Hey Gavin. You could stay on WordPress.com for now if you are happy with the functionality. If you have no monetary interest in it then you might be fine with what that platform offers. However, if you want to have any commercial activity at all, then this is not allowed on WordPress.com (it’s against terms of service, and often this gets blocked even if you tried). You also can’t do more advanced stuff with your templates or plugins.

      It is possible to migrate your content from a WordPress.com account to a self-hosted account in the future. Just count on this being a bit of a project. You’ll need to extract the content from one site and insert it into the other, and point the domain to your new site as well.

  6. Victoria Reply June 21, 2017 at 8:34 pm

    Hey Marek,

    Is there a device you would recommend for traveling and blogging purposes. I don’t want to lung around my laptop so I’m looking to get something that I can use for these purposes before I leave on my year long trip. Something light but that will also have the capacity and storage for any software I might need to download like WordPress.

    • Marek Reply June 22, 2017 at 12:18 pm

      Hmm, well, you could consider an Android tablet. Put in a big SD card, or learn how you can attach an external drive to it where you can store things like photos etc. Or you could get a small lightweight laptop (some suggestions here).

      • Victoria Reply June 22, 2017 at 1:39 pm

        Marek,

        Thanks for the advice. I’ll look into that link.

  7. Travel Jaunts Reply January 12, 2017 at 3:40 am

    Have seen the travel blog success course, let me look at Fizzle. Thank you for sharing however have you used any of these?

    • Marek Reply January 12, 2017 at 11:25 am

      You mean Fizzle? I watched their videos almost nonstop before I launched my blog. 🙂

  8. Vincent Reply November 28, 2016 at 12:03 am

    Hey, IMHO if you want a fast and easy blog, you should use Medium

    There is no cost and the default on the blog are really beautiful 🙂

    • Marek Reply November 28, 2016 at 2:05 pm

      I love Medium though by design it’s very limited with customisation/templating (which is something many people do want for a travel blog), and it’s bad for ever monetising it (they don’t allow it). I agree Medium could be a great option for some people though!

  9. Ivan Tannenberg Reply November 5, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    Hello, Marek!
    Sorry for that late comment but still there is one thing I’d like to ask about Word Press.
    Should one know PHP to run it properly?
    Thanks for that comprehensive post!

    • Marek Reply November 23, 2015 at 10:20 pm

      No knowledge of PHP is needed (unless maybe you want to do rather advanced stuff). If you use plugins, you can build a site with WordPress without coding knowledge.

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