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How to Start a Travel Blog: Learn From My Mistakes

how to start a travel blog

So you want to start a travel blog, huh?

Starting a travel blog was one of the best decisions I ever made. Setting up my blog led me to my husband. Through blogging, I’ve made several lasting friendships. Blogging allows me to get a free trip or tour here and there. Once I got free luggage. My site has opened doors to freelance writing contracts and other blogging gigs. And after awhile, my blog Travel Made Simple has become my biggest source of income.

But I had no idea what I was doing when I started. I feel strongly that I could have been earning money from blogging years ago if I had been more focused and taken the time to really learn how to do it from the beginning.

So before you get too excited about the huge piles of cash you’re hoping to make from blogging, take a step back and work through the steps of setting up a blog and learn how to avoid the mistakes I’ve made over the years.

Why do you want to start a travel blog?

First it’s important to understand why you’re starting a blog. If you’re looking for a hobby, that’s perfectly acceptable, and in some ways, easier. But if you’re interested in earning money from your blog, whether to supplement your current income or to eventually become your main source of income, it’s important to treat your site like a business from the beginning.

I don’t think I knew exactly why I was starting a blog at the beginning. I kept saying it was a hobby and a way to enjoy travel in between trips, but if I’m being honest, I think I also hoped some wonderful money-making opportunity would just fall in my lap simply because I had a blog.

Guess what? It doesn’t work that way. I didn’t start making money from blogging until I actually, you know, put effort into finding ways to make the site earn money.

how to start a travel blog

Blogging from Thailand – just one of the perks

What’s your blog about?

You also need to get really specific about your niche. A blog about what you did on your summer vacation isn’t going to stand out. Make yourself an expert, figure out what makes you unique, and share your experiences so others can learn from you.

Some examples of niches include blogging about a particular country or region, or focusing on budget travel or luxury travel. You could write about vegan travel or traveling with kids. The more specific you’re niche is, the better off you’ll be.

The most important thing is to offer value to your readers. They want to know what’s in it for them and how they will benefit from reading your blog. How are you helping others with your site?

It’s also important to let your personality shine through. No matter what topic you choose, someone else has already done it, so you need a unique perspective. Figure out how you’re different because that’s what will keep people interested.

When I started Ali’s Adventures, I really didn’t have a niche. It didn’t go beyond “travel” and as a result, it never grew very big. But now, after sadly neglecting it for far too long, I’m working on revamping the site and making it more focused.

As for Travel Made Simple, I always knew I wanted it to be a site that helped new travelers. It took me awhile to figure out what kinds of topics to write about that those people would be interested in, so it was slow going at the beginning. But over the past 2 years, the site has really grown a lot, and now I get anywhere from 120,000 to 150,000 pageviews per month.

What’s in a name?

Your blog’s name is its identity. Would you get a dog and just name it Spot? No, probably not. Do some serious brainstorming about the name of your blog because it’s one of the first things readers notice, and it’s a pain to change it later. You want something catchy but not too complicated. Don’t pick something that sounds like everyone else because you’ll blend in too much. There are already too many Nomadic, Adventurous, and Backpacker blog names.

If you want to work with brands, you don’t want to sound unprofessional. Think about how your blog name will sound to tourism boards and travel companies. Hangovers Around the World probably won’t get you too far.

Also think into the future. Chances are you and your site will evolve. Try to find a name that’s flexible without sounding too vague. If you’re going to study abroad in France for a year, Fran in France won’t work after your year is over. Hostel Harry won’t work if you decide a few years from now that you prefer luxury hotels. You might also decide you want to sell your site at some point, and that’s harder to do if your name is in it.

In hindsight, Ali’s Adventures wasn’t the most creative name I could’ve come up with. I liked the alliteration, but I didn’t think about it much beyond that. Now it sounds too generic, too much like everything else out there. I also don’t like that it has the ‘s in the name because I couldn’t decide if it should be aliadventures.com or alisadventures.com. Neither is perfect, and I wish I had picked something without that issue. I do like that the name can grow with me and doesn’t necessarily have to be about travel. And I am happy with Travel Made Simple.

how to start a travel blog

Buying a domain

Your domain is the URL people use to get to your site. Try to get the .com version because that’s what most people will type when they want to go to your site. Plus if there’s already a site out there about a similar topic with the name you want, starting another one with .org or .net will be that much harder to turn into a successful travel blog.

It’s also worth avoiding hyphens if you can. It gets annoying having to tell people my other site is “Travel Made Simple with dashes between the words.” The domain without the hyphens isn’t available. Someone has basically been squatting on it for years. But if there was a travel site using that domain, I wouldn’t have picked the version with the hyphens because it would’ve been near impossible to compete. Instead I would’ve chosen an entirely different name.

Before committing to a domain, check for matching social media accounts. It’s good to get them to match as closely as possible. Look at Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, and any others you might want to use. Some of them, like Twitter, limit how long your name can be, so you might have to use a shortened version.

My Twitter account is @aliadventures7 because when I first started, someone had @aliadventures. So I tacked on the 7 for the 7 continents of the world. But no one else realizes that’s why I picked 7, and numbers are a little tacky. Now every few months, I struggle with the idea of changing it, but I can’t quite settle on what it should be, so I put it off. Someone has @aligarland, so that’s not an option, and there are mixed opinions about using an underscore in the handle.

Give your blog a home

Hosting is the server your site lives on, like renting an apartment. This is important because if the server goes down, your site goes down. Customer service is key here. You want a company who will help you out when you need it and one that will work hard to get your site up and running again if there is a server problem. I used Bluehost for a couple years, but my site went down far too often and for far too long. Like several hours at a time. Not cool.

Now both of my sites (and all of Andy’s websites) are hosted with HostGator. Their customer service has been incredibly helpful to us the few times we’ve had to call. My site has only gone down once or twice, and never for more than a couple of minutes. Things like that happen no matter what hosting company you choose, but I’d prefer a company that gets my site back up quickly.

I mentioned earlier that blogging led me to my husband. Well, what happened was I met Barbara from Cultural Travel with Hole in the Donut while she was in Atlanta. She convinced me to switch from a free site to a self-hosted site. She even told me she’d help me get it set up, once I registered my domain and got the hosting in place.

But I was overwhelmed. I didn’t have any step-by-step guides for setting up a blog. So I tweeted something like, “I just bought my domain but I have no idea how to set up the hosting.” And Andy happened to see it. He offered to stay up late (he was already living in Germany, which is 6 hours ahead of Atlanta) to get on Skype and help me out.

That could’ve been the end of it, but instead we kept in touch with each other. Through emails and more Skype calls, we got to know each other very well, very quickly. We were in love before we even met in person. I worried about how it would ever work out, but Andy kept reassuring me that “4000 miles is just a detail.” After four months we met in person, and less than a year after that initial tweet, we got married. A month after that, I was living in Germany.

(Note: Your blogging results may vary. Blogging might not lead to a long distance relationship, marriage, and relocation to another continent.)

how to start a travel blog

How to set up hosting

Now, I’m glad I was overwhelmed enough to throw up my hands and ask the Twitterverse for help, but it doesn’t have to be that way for you. It’s actually not that hard to set up your hosting account.

At this point you are committed to having a site and making a go at building it up online. You need to actually start spending money and doing the little technical things to get it all hooked up. As I mention above, Andy and I have had real good luck with HostGator as a host. They have 24hour customer service and have been very helpful even with a lot of moves and changes we have made over the years.

The Hatchling plan is for a single site: one domain name. The Baby plan is good if you plan to have several sites. You can host them all together for savings. Really think about doing a 1 year package. You get savings over month-to-month and it is long enough that you should get an idea if blogging is something you can stick with. You can always upgrade plans and signup for longer terms later if you decide that you are really getting into blogging.

how to start a travel blog

HostGator also can sell you the domain name at the same time as the hosting. Some people will argue that it is good to have your name registered at somewhere different than your host. There are some reasons for this, but if you are just starting out and not a technical person, getting the domain name at the same time as the hosting will simplify setup.domainname

One of the add-ons you can purchase from wherever you register your domain name, including HostGator, is something called Domain Privacy. The rules of the Internet require a real address and contact to be attached to every domain name. Domain Privacy means that the company you buy your name from will mask your information so your home address isn’t available. It is usually a cheap thing per year and worth it if you don’t want your info out there.

how to start a travel blogOnce you have purchased your packet, you will get several emails. One email has login information to what is called the cPanel. This is the administrative part to your hosting account. Login to that to set up your blogging software. When you first log in, cPanel can look very overwhelming. Don’t worry, you won’t need 95% of these options. Look for the button called “QuickInstall” near the bottom. Click this to get to the software installer.

wordpress

Select WordPress from the left menu. Then click the Install WordPress button.

wordpress2Fill in the form to install the software on your hosting and create your user account.

  1. This is the domain you want to install the blog on.
  2. If you wanted to install the blog in a subfolder, you would put that here. For your first blog, leave this blank. The blog will just show up if you go to your domain.
  3. Put in your email. You will be the admin for your site.
  4. Put in a title for your blog. This is changeable later, so do fret too much about it.
  5. Don’t leave the account name as “admin”. Pick something else.
  6. Your first name
  7. Your last name.
  8. Click “Install WordPress” and wait for the install to complete.

Once the software is installed, you will be given a  login and password to your blank site. Go to your domain with /wp-admin on the end, so yoursite.com/wp-admin, and enter your login details. You are now logged into your new blog.

Why WordPress?

So I told you above to just installed WordPress. What is WordPress anyway? It is THE most popular blogging software on the internet. There are certainly others, but if you are just starting out you will find more information and more help around WordPress as a system then anything else. It is essentially a flexible platform that gives you a basis for your website and tons of options to change how it looks and functions.

WordPress is expandable in two basic ways: themes and plugins. Themes are the skin of the site and how it looks. Plugins add functionality or other small bits to the site. These together will take the blank vanilla WordPress that you get when you install it to having your personalized site ready to make money.

Both themes and plugins can be a HUGE rabbit hole and time sink. It can be very overwhelming, but at the beginning just pick a theme and a small handful of plugins and go with it for a while. You can change all of this later and it isn’t worth getting bogged down. Talk to almost any blogger and they will have a story of an entire afternoon wasted staring at themes or looking for a new plugin. I’ve spent days searching for the “perfect” theme. You are better off writing content, especially at the beginning.

Choosing a theme for your blog

You want your site to look unique so it will reflect your personality or your brand, and so it doesn’t look like every other blog on the internet. Part of how you do this is with a theme. Your WordPress site will come with a theme, but it’s rather basic and boring. I wouldn’t recommend using that one.

To get started, you can search for free themes, but there are also lots of paid themes. Paid themes give you much more flexibility to customize, they have more options built in, and they usually function better than free themes. Travel Made Simple uses a theme I purchased from Theme Forest, and Ali’s Adventures uses Themify.

No matter what, pick a theme that is responsive or has a mobile option. Responsive just means that the site will adjust its own layout on smaller screens. So it is a fancy technical term for “looks good on phones”. So many people search the web using mobile devices now, and if your site isn’t responsive, it won’t work well or look good on a smart phone. As a reference, roughly half the traffic I get on Travel Made Simple is from a mobile device.

Plugins and more for your travel blog

WordPress also supports plugins, which add more functionality to the blog. There are thousands of plugins out there, some free and some paid, but keep it simple. Here are a few of the important ones:

  • Akismet – This filters out the majority of the spam comments. It’s a must-have plugin.
  • Yoast SEO – If you want your blog to do well in search engines, this is an essential plugin. It helps you write posts in a way that targets the keywords you’re going after, so it’s THE plugin for SEO.
  • JetPack – This one isn’t as important, but I like it. It’s built by the same group that built WordPress and offers lots of different things in one package, like stats (but doesn’t replace Google Analytics for stats), contact forms, social sharing buttons, and so much more.
  • WP Super Cache – Also built by the team that supports WordPress, this is a caching plugin that is easy to configure and helps speed up your site.
  • A backup system – This can come in the form of a plugin, but I’d recommend something like Crashplan that will back up everything on your computer, including all your important photos and files.

JetPack offers some statistics about which pages your readers view and where they come from, but Google Analytics offers a lot more detail. If your aim is to make money from your site, Analytics is a must. Like most Google things, their side is super easy to set up. You will need to set up an Analytics account and create an entry for your blog name, which will give you an ID code. Many themes have space for this code, but if not you can easily find Analytics plugins that take the code and do the heavy lifting for you.

Be yourself

Don’t be afraid to be different. In fact, being different is often what leads to success. Readers are usually attracted to your blog by your personality and that’s what makes them want to follow along. It’s better to do something that will make you stand out. There are millions of sites already out there, so find a way to differentiate yourself and your blog.

This includes showing your flaws occasionally. Even if you want to be seen as the expert in your field, readers can relate to you more if you show how you got there and the mistakes you made along the way. It can make you seem more human, and depending on how you write it, it can be funny and entertaining.

It also means sometimes showing the negative side of things. There are soooo many travel blogs that try to convince you to sell all your things, leave home, and travel as a permanent nomad. But that does NOT work for everyone. And it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. Don’t sell your readers on an idea you can’t stand behind, and don’t gloss over the tough parts.

how to start a travel blog

The t-shirt has a nice idea, but they’re skipping a few steps.

Should you take a blogging course?

I don’t think it’s 100% necessary to take a course to learn how to blog. That said, there are a lot of great courses out there that can help you get a jump start on things and get ahead faster. Blogging courses were never really on my radar until after I felt like I knew enough of the basics to not need a course.

These days there are courses for just about anything blog-related. If you want to learn more about affiliate marketing or working with brands or photography or improving your writing, you can find a course that fits your needs. Read reviews and testimonials and make sure you have a good understanding of what the course will provide before you commit to it.

I also think it’s important to get your blog going before you start taking too many courses. Start writing posts and your about page, get your theme looking the way you want it to, refine the focus of your blog, and then think about courses. Signing up for too many courses when you haven’t even written your first blog post could easily overwhelm you. Plus, it’s important to work on getting traffic and an engaged audience before you start trying to monetize everything.

I took the Making Sense of Affiliate Marketing Course, and I loved it. If you’re just starting out and you’re interested in monetizing your site with affiliate commissions, I highly recommend this course. She goes into great detail about how to make money this way, and it makes the whole process a lot less overwhelming, especially for a beginner.

Get your site launched, and then see which areas you need help with and sign up for a course or two.

Monetizing your blog

Despite what I just said about not jumping on every single course and trying to monetize every little piece of your site from the beginning, you don’t want to wait too long either. If you begin your blog with a plan for how you would like to earn money and you treat it like a business from day 1, you’ll be much better off.

Some of the ways people make money from blogs include advertising, affiliate commissions, brand partnerships, sponsored posts, offering your own products or services, being hired as a speaker or consultant, or any combination of these. Some bloggers run tours and use their blog to showcase the destinations they visit and attract new customers for the tours. You can also use your blog as a portfolio that can lead to other ways of earning money, like freelance writing, photography services, or web design.

Not every approach to earning money will work with every blog or every personality. See how different things work with your site and how comfortable you and your readers are with each option. Sponsored posts often annoy readers because the seem spammy, and the pay isn’t that great. Advertising can work on certain sites but not others. For example, Travel Made Simple gets mostly search traffic, so I don’t mind having ads there, but I don’t put a lot of ads on Ali’s Adventures. Remember that if whatever you’re doing turns readers away, your income will drop. Whatever you’re doing not only has to work for you, but it has to be in the best interest of your readers.

I like affiliate marketing because I’m recommending things I use anyway, and anytime someone clicks an affiliate link on my site and buys that item (or anything else in most cases) I get commission. Amazon is the best one to start with because almost anything you’d ever want to buy can be found there. I’m also enrolled in a few other programs through sites like Commission Junction (CJ) and Shareasale.

Don’t spread yourself too thin, and start with just a few affiliates at first. Signing up for dozens of affiliate programs at once means tons of work all at the same time trying to figure out how and where to promote them all. Plus, it’s not a good idea to promote things you have no experience with. It all comes down to trust, and if your readers don’t trust you, none of it works.

Overall, embrace who you are, make sure you know why you want to start a travel blog, and sketch out a plan so you can start a successful travel blog AND have fun with it!

how to start a travel blog

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