15 Years of Travel Blogging: 10 Things I Did Right

by Brenna Holeman

How many photos of laptops can I fit in this post? Answer: A lot

At the beginning of June, I wrote a post entitled, “15 Years of Travel Blogging: 10 Things I Did Wrong.” As I highlighted in that post, there were a hell of a lot of things I did wrong during these past 15 years of blogging; in fact, I’m pretty sure I could have added at least another dozen or so points to that post (example: promises follow-up post about things I did right in travel blogging the following week, takes more than five months to deliver).

And while I have made mistake after mistake, I must have been doing something right, because 15 years later… I’m still here, and I’m making money doing what I love. I may not be the most prolific blogger, nor the most technically skilled, nor do I know how the hell Pinterest works, but I’ve been able to make a modest business out of what I do all the same.

However, as I said in that last post, I feel I need to preface this post by saying… I might not be the best example of how to create a successful blog today. Let’s face it: tons of the bloggers who are indeed “successful” today owe a huge part of their success to being the first (I believe success is what you make it, but for the sake of argument let’s define a successful blogger as someone who makes a living from their website). I strongly believe a lot of us wouldn’t do very well if we started from scratch in 2018, because a lot of us benefitted from techniques that would no longer work in today’s blogging landscape. I mean… I started well before social media was a thing, or before any of us knew a lick about things like search engine optimisation and coding.

This is all to say that, as always, I just want to be totally honest with you about what I believe helped my blog and business over the past 15 years. Do I think it can be easily replicated? No, probably not. As I’ve written about before, in How I Got Started: My Journey Through 11 Years of Travelling and Writing About It, there is absolutely no way to exactly replicate someone’s path in life. All I can hope that you take away from this post is some inspiration and some reassurance that you’re on the right path.

Because, trust me, you’re on the right path, even if it doesn’t feel like it at this moment. You’re on the right path because you’re on YOUR path. Even if it feels like you’re doing everything wrong, you’re not. Everything you’re doing today is laying groundwork for the future and teaching you valuable lessons. As I said in the past post, I make TONS of mistakes every single day, and I’ve most likely lost readers, income, and potential partnerships from not always making the right decisions. But I also know I’ve done a few things right, and I stick to those when I’m feeling low or feeling bad about my blog.

So in no particular order, here are 10 things I’ve done right in travel blogging.

The 10 Things I’ve Done Right in Travel Blogging

I Never Gave Up

You want to know why those “successful” bloggers are so successful? Sure, you can look at business tactics, great technical skills, or the right connections, but I think it’s even simpler than that. The one thing that every single successful blogger has in common is that none of us gave up. Why are we the ones getting paid campaigns and earning a living from our blogs? Because we’re still here. We’re still working. We never gave up.

Off the top of my head, I can think of very few travel bloggers who must be making a decent wage who have been around for less than three years, or even five years. Most of my friends who are earning a living from their blogs have been around even longer than that. As it is with most businesses, determination is one of the key components you need in order to be successful in the travel blogging industry.

I’m sometimes amazed at the fact that I have indeed kept up blogging. Everything else in my life has changed in those 15 years: I’ve moved from houses to apartments to more apartments to my very own house, I’ve travelled to nearly 100 countries, I’ve dated almost all of the men I swore I’d never date (some of them twice!), and I’ve had dozens of heinous haircuts. If you’re just starting out, it can be SO DIFFICULT to keep it up, especially when you see almost no results from it. You can feel like you’re drowning, and that everyone else is making so much more progress than you.

But here’s the thing: do you remember learning how to read? What about how to write? If you play an instrument that you learned as a child, do you remember all of the hours upon hours you spent learning those new songs? I try to reflect on this whenever I’m embarking on something new as an adult and I suck royally at it. “Why can’t I just be good at this already?” I moan, after expending exactly 45 minutes of energy on something that takes hours upon days upon years to be good at. We all suck when we try new things (including starting new business ventures). When we were kids, we sucked at pretty much everything (unless we’re like, Chopin or some chess prodigy or something). We just don’t remember having to learn EVERYTHING.

But we did. We studied and we practiced and slowly we learned how to read, how to write, how to throw a football or tie our shoes or drive a car or speak Spanish or, unless you’re my most recent ex, how to exhibit proper table manners (seriously dude, it’s a knife and a fork, not a spear and a shovel).

Blogging is, in so many ways, just like that. It takes time. It takes practice. It takes that determination we had as kids. You might look at me and think, “Why the hell did she get invited on that press trip?” or “When am I going to be able to make money from my blog, too?” but please, please, PLEASE remember that I have been doing this for 15 years. When you were in kindergarten, did you try out for senior volleyball? No. I’m not saying it will take you 15 years, but I guarantee it will take at least one year, if not more, before you start seeing real – or even see any – results from your hard work. You know what they say: you can’t be the noun without doing the verb. In other words, you can’t be a blogger without blogging.

Have you heard of the Lindy effect? It essentially means that, the longer something is around, the longer it will stay around. According to Wikipedia, every professor’s favourite source, “every additional period of survival implies a longer remaining life expectancy”. What that means is, the longer you continue to blog, the more likely your blog will stick around.

I may not blog as often as I’d like anymore, but I can’t imagine never not blogging, even if nobody read what I was writing. In order to be truly successful, you have to have the same attitude. Never give up. Keep blogging, no matter what. 

I Figured Out What I Was Best At Doing

I’ve read time and time again that in order to be a successful blogger, you have to be a jack of all trades. You have to be good at writing, copy editing, photography, photo editing, video, video editing, social media (including Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and any other platform that may horrifyingly pop up like some evil version of blogging whack-a-mole), newsletters, search engine optimisation, web design, and web development. You might want to throw in creating your own product, starting your own course, writing a book, and/or setting up tours or retreats. Oh, and in the beginning, you have to be a master at networking, making the right connections, getting on the right lists, and writing as many guest posts as you possibly can for other, more successful bloggers.

Did you get all of that?

If your head isn’t spinning right now – I seriously think just typing out that paragraph gave me hives – I am here to tell you: HOGWASH. CODSWALLOP. BALDERDASH. (this is fun)

In other words… BULLSHIT. If you seriously think that you are going to be able to master all of those extremely varied talents and skills, good on ya. But imagine if I told you I was, let’s say, opening my own store, and I was going to design the building on my own, build the building by myself, install the electricity and plumbing, do all of the advertising and marketing, buy all of the merchandise, organise all of the merchandise, design the interior of the store, be the store’s sole salesperson, handle all customer service, do all of the paperwork and bookkeeping, AND scrub the floors at the end of the night?

You’d say I was bonkers.

What a lot of “successful” bloggers don’t want to tell you, or don’t really let on, is that they have assistants. Some of them even have multiple assistants, some of them full-time. They also might not talk about the fact that it took them years upon years of trial and error to figure out what they’re good at and what they need to outsource. And don’t get me wrong – I have NOTHING against hiring assistants to help you out. Hell, I wish I had the wherewithal to do it myself.

Because the fact of the matter is that you can only be good at so many things in life, unless you’re Beyoncé, Rihanna, or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (coincidentally the only three celebrities I follow on Instagram). You have to figure out what it is that you think you can excel at with your blog, and what you can either a) work around/ignore or b) outsource to somebody else once you have the income to do so.

For me, of that big long list, I only truly excel at writing. It’s what I’ve done my whole life, what I love doing the best, and what others respond to the most. Writing has been my strong suit all along, and I’ve built this blog on the fact that I can string words together.

The other things on that list I enjoy and I think I’m good at are photography, some social media (Facebook and Instagram when I remember that they exist), and… um… I guess some of my articles do OK on search engines? I despise video, can’t be bothered spending hours every day on various social media platforms, and could write everything I know about web development on a post-it note.

But still… here I am. I make my living writing online. I make my living doing what I love. I didn’t try to spread myself too thin, or drive myself crazy trying to learn skills I had no real interest in learning, and didn’t spend hours each day working on a platform that’s doomed to eventually fail (*cough* Facebook *cough*).

Instead, I focused on what I was really good at, and learned how to use that to my advantage. I focused on studying writing constantly and read everything I could to become a better writer. So whether it’s video, or editing, or social media, or creating products, or email newsletters… find what you love doing, what you’re good at doing, and focus on that. If you try to be good at everything, you’ll stress out and lose sight of what you’re after in the first place.

I Stayed True to Myself

I like to write really long, rambling posts, like to detail all my failed dating experiences, like to share my political opinions, like to talk about booze, and like to swear. I have been told by many people (in the industry and otherwise) to not do any of those things if I want to have a successful blog (or a boyfriend, for that matter).

To all those I say:

In other words… you gotta do you. Seriously. You have to speak from the heart and stay true to who you really are. There are so many cookie-cutter blogs and Instagram accounts out there; the only way you will ever stand out and ever be happy about the work you’re producing is if you remain true to yourself. 

Write about your passions. Write with your true voice. Take photos of what you love. Make videos of things that make you laugh and make you cry. Don’t shy away from difficult topics, especially those you can lend your platform to, no matter how big or small that platform may be. If you try too hard to be someone else in the hopes that it will appease/attract readers or followers, all you’ll end up doing is look like a carbon copy, and you’ll be miserable to boot.

Trust me: there will always be someone who’s into what you’re into. There will always be someone who connects with your voice. Find your community. Sure, the same photos keep getting the same likes on Instagram again and again, but do you really want to spend your days replicating something that’s already been done before?

Be you. You’re the only one the world’s got.

I Studied Constantly

Does a neurosurgeon just magically know how to perform brain surgery? No. She studies for years and years before she’s ever allowed in an operating room.

So why should a blogger just magically be amazing at blogging?

I’ll admit, when I first got started, I was blogging in a bubble. I learned how to do a lot on my own, and read only a handful of other blogs. And guess what? I stayed exactly in that same bubble for nearly the first decade of my blogging career, unaware of what was around me.

When I finally broke out of that bubble and realised there was a lot more to blogging than what I was doing, I started researching.

First, I started reading tons of other travel blogs and took note of what I liked and didn’t like; in those days people were a lot more generous with their links and would often have a list of “must read” blogs on their sidebars.

Second, I started Googling and reading articles about blogging. There are literally hundreds of thousands of those out there now, but at the time there weren’t as many. For everything I’ve written about blogging, make sure to check out the Writing and Blogging category, or check out:

When Did Travel Blogging Get So Boring?

Every Single Thing I Know About Blogging

On Hitting “Publish”: Everything That Goes Through My Brain Before Publishing a Blog Post

I Feel Bad About my Blog

Every Single Thing I Know About Instagram

Every Single Thing I Know About Social Media

Third, I started attending travel blogging conferences. Again, there are many of these out there, but they are unfortunately often confined to the continents of either Europe or North America, and it often costs a lot of money to attend (conference tickets, flights, hotels, and spending money have meant I’ve spent roughly $1000 per conference I’ve attended that I haven’t spoken at).

Fourth, and probably most important, is that I chose to focus on one thing – writing – and study that every single day. I got a master’s degree in creative non-fiction writing, I read everything I could about writing, and I decided that writing is what I wanted to be known for. Not photography, not Instagram, not video, just writing. And when I realised that, I put my all into it. I firmly believe in the 10,000 hours rule; you need 10,000 hours of practice before you’re really, really good at something.

Blogging is like anything else: you need to study and you need to practice. I’m still doing both every single day.

As for blogging courses, I personally never took any, even though I’ve signed up for a few. I’m hesitant to promote any sort of blogging or writing course unless I’ve actually completed them and can vouch for them, but if you find one that seems like a good fit for you, I say go for it. That being said, I personally am excited to start Kristin’s Photo Muse Masterclass as I’d like some more guidance on photography (I’m still very much a point and shoot gal, though I’m proud of my photography’s composition).

The other thing I would very much like to study going forward is SEO (search engine optimisation). I don’t mean to bury the lede or anything, but I believe SEO is the most important aspect of any blogger/influencer’s business save the whole “find your passion and create from the heart” vibe I’m laying down in this post.

Some of the most successful/highest paid bloggers out there aren’t big on Instagram or YouTube. They’re quietly doing the work, getting hits on Google, and earning great ad and affiliate income. That’s the direction I’d like to take, too, while still continuing to post about things I love that will never rank in a search engine. Personally, I’d aim for 50/50: 50% “searchable” posts to get those clicks on Google with “non-readers”, 50% personal posts that will keep loyal readers wanting to come back for more. Seriously – study SEO and study writing. Those two things will help the most with revenue and readers.

Photos from a reader meet-up in London

I’ve Never Forgotten Why I’m Able to Do This

That sounds a little dramatic, I’ll admit. But the only reason I’m able to do this for a living is because of you. You reading this right now. And holy shit, am I grateful. To reiterate: holy shit, I am grateful for you. Can I buy you a glass of whisky? You’re honestly the best.

Have you heard of the “1,000 true fans” theory? I’m a huge believer in this. There’s a difference between a fan (let’s say someone who follows you on Facebook) and a “true” fan. A true fan is someone who will buy your book, subscribe to your blog, take one of your courses, join one of your retreats, and so on. They’ll put their money where their follow button is. Don’t believe the hype that you need hundreds of thousands of followers to make it in this industry – all you really need is a core group of true fans that will support you and love what you do. I recently heard a blogger say that, as long as she has 50 people sign up to her retreats each year, she’ll make more than all of her other revenue channels combined.

That being said, I was talking with a group of very successful bloggers at an event once – I don’t want to be all like, “Oh, you’d DEFINITELY know them,” but yeah, for real, you’d know them if you know the major travel blogs out there – and we were talking about when readers come up to us to say hello, and what having true fans feels like.

Can I just stop for a second and say how fucking awesome that is? That someone RECOGNISES you from something you’re really passionate about? I mean, I’m not saying I’m Anjelica Huston (I have no idea why she was the first celebrity that popped in my mind but I’m rolling with it, because she’s amazing and I will forever want to be Anjelica as Morticia Addams) but I have had people come up to me, both at travel blogging conferences/events and in the “real world”, and it always leaves me a little dizzy in the best way. Like, holy shit, you not only like my blog but you recognised me?! 

So anyway, this group of bloggers and I were talking about this because someone had just – ahem – come up to say how much they liked my blog (total brag, sorry). We were sharing stories about some of the best/funniest times this has happened to us*, when one of the bloggers said, very dramatically,

“Ugh. I’m so fucking sick of it.”

*record scratch*

Let’s be honest here. None of us are, in fact, Anjelica Huston. It’s not like we’re mobbed going to the grocery store. It’s not like this is happening every day. I used to get recognised a lot more in London, but here in Winnipeg it has happened only a handful of times. Even bloggers that have wayyyyyyyy more followers than me on their various platforms are certainly not being pestered to the point of having to hide behind dark sunglasses and check into hotels under pseudonyms (mine would be, naturally, Morticia Addams).

“Really?” another blogger asked, one who definitely has seen her fair share of fans. “I find it really sweet.”

“I agree,” I added. ” I mean… what could be better than someone saying that they love the work you’re doing?”

“Yeah…,” the first blogger said, “but even after the 1000th time?”

At a Vancouver reader meet-up

OK, for the record, I have not been approached 1000 times. But even if I was… YEP. EVEN AFTER 1000 TIMES. Even after one gabillion times. I absolutely hate when celebrities complain about fans coming up to them, because it’s like… who do you think is going to your movies? Buying your concert tickets? Purchasing your books? And so on. If you don’t want to be approached, don’t put your fucking face out there. Don’t go into a field where you might be recognised if you hate being recognised.

As this blogger talked, I honestly felt like it was like a king talking about his peasants. And again.. this blogger makes their entire living off of their blog, meaning it’s because of readers that they are able to sit at home in their sweatpants and eat hummus all day while staring at their phone and raking in ad revenue (this is obviously what all bloggers do, don’t @ me). To reiterate: this blogger was successful because of readers, and then resented that readers sometimes came up to them and said they admired their work. Yuck. How ridiculously arrogant.

Another thing I’ve noticed a lot is that some bloggers/influencers complain about their followings. I recently saw a blogger complain that her Instagram follower number hadn’t risen in a few months, and she was really frustrated about that. This particular blogger has over 100,000 followers on Instagram. First of all… fuck off. I know that’s crass and rude, but seriously… fuck the fuck right off. Do you know how many people would love to have the financial benefits that 100,000 followers bring? Secondly… what is that saying to the 100,000 of us who DO follow her (used to follow her, because I unfollowed immediately. Have fun with your 99,999 followers, my friend!)? That we don’t matter?

This is all to say… thank you. I do not take any of you for granted. I do not take the fact that you are reading this right now, or that you have read anything on this blog before, for granted. I don’t take the followings I have on social media for granted, either, nor will I ever complain about what I have.

For me, that also means answering every single comment I receive: on the blog, on Facebook, on Instagram, and so on. I sometimes miss some of them, but I try my best to respond to everyone. I’m terrible with email, but I always eventually get to those, too. Whether you’re receiving one comment a week or one hundred, I think it’s important to recognise the people who are there supporting you and responding to your work.

No matter what happens or how many readers you gain, be thankful for everyone who takes the time to follow along. Unless you’re purchasing bots (uh, don’t), those aren’t just numbers. Every single one of those numbers is a person who has willingly and actively chosen to follow you, and could become a true fan. The blogging/influencer world is very competitive, and they’ve chosen to follow you? Be grateful for every single one.

*My best story of being recognised, because it involved swift justice:

I was involved with this guy who lives in Italy, and he had flown me back to Italy to see him. He had always teased me about being a blogger (big red flag, but give me a break… he was freaking Italian, remember) and had just been teasing me in front of a group of people at a hostel.

“Wait a second,” one of the hostel-goers said. “You’re a blogger? Um… is your blog This Battered Suitcase?! I thought I recognised you!” The Italian guy sat there silently drinking his grappa as I chattered away with this girl, feeling like the coolest person in the world. I honestly could have kissed her.

FYI, that Italian guy ended up being SO LAME and besides the fact that he could SPEAK HIS NATIVE LANGUAGE (I really need to start aiming higher with these guys) I only have one good thing to say about him, and that is that he inspired my now most-popular blog post on this blog. Grazie!

Obviously I draft all of my blog posts like this… on a typewriter, with my trusty scissors and pineapple nearby. WTF is this, seriously?

I Said No Far More Often Than I Said Yes

I get a lot of emails. That’s not supposed to be a humblebrag – everyone gets a lot of emails – but yeah, between my freelance work, my personal email, and this blog’s email, I get a lot of emails. Every day, due to this blog, I get anywhere from 10 to 50 emails a day. A lot I delete without responding (spam/sponsored post requests), a handful are from readers, and the rest are offers and/or collaboration requests. In the past week alone, I have had offers for:

-at least five sponsored posts a day, usually more (a sponsored post is when some company, these days usually a shady one, asks to post something on your blog. They do this because they want a backlink from your site in order to boost their site’s popularity. This used to be one of the main ways bloggers made money but I have never participated and never plan to)

-a trip to a sunny location in Europe

-a trip to a sunny location in North America

-two new books to review

-an electric toothbrush to review

-a limo service in London to review

-a restaurant in Liverpool to review

-40 billion apps to review (no for real, why are there so many travel apps that all do the same thing? No I do not want to prepare intricate travel itineraries for free, thank you)

-opportunities for me to write for a brand new website that can’t offer any payment but trust me, one day the exposure will be huge. HUGE

Some of these opportunities were paid, some not. And once in a blue moon I’ll accept either a paid or an unpaid opportunity if it fits this blog, or if I think it’s really cool and/or I would happily spend money on it anyway.

Most of the time, though, like this week?

I say no to everything. I say no 99.5% of the time.

It’s a magical feeling the first time someone approaches you as a blogger and suggests a collaboration. Even if it’s for a shitty sponsored post that pays $30 and you will obviously say no, it’s a good feeling to know that you’re at least on someone’s radar. I started off with nothing but those shitty sponsored post emails and, over the years, that progressed to better and better opportunities.

When you get your first press trip invitation, oh man, that feels like you’re floating on a cloud. I still remember the first one I got, five years ago, and I immediately called my mum and was almost screaming with excitement.

But as the opportunities kept coming, I had to evaluate what would really work for me and for this blog’s brand. I hated thinking that I had a “brand” years ago – brands were for yuppies… see below – but yes, every blog has a brand. Your brand involves your tone of voice, the topics you cover, the things you are passionate about, and so on.

For me, going on an intense hiking trip isn’t on brand. Neither is going to an all-inclusive resort, or a yoga retreat, or on a party bus tour of Europe. Sadly, I did not establish myself as a luxury blogger back in the day (but for WHY?!) so I doubt I’ll be invited to a five-star resort in the Seychelles anytime soon. A trip that highlights the best museums of Mississippi? Totally up my alley. An amazing local folk festival? Yep, I’m there. A whisky-tasting tour? Um… YES… spot on… and why haven’t I been invited on this yet?!

I’m not trying to be all like, loooook at meeeee, I’ve been invited on SO MANY TRIPS, but yeah, I’ve been invited on hundreds of press trips. I’m asked to work with a new brand or product or app every single day. And how many of those do you see on this blog? As I said earlier… probably 0.5%.

This is all to say, you need to be selective. You need to make sure that what you’re accepting fits your blog, fits your message, and fits your brand. I’ve seen so many bloggers post about any product, take any trip, and so on, and looking at their blogs just looks like one big sponsored ad. I don’t know about you, but that immediately turns me off a blog. I have unfollowed countless people on Instagram who seemed to post nothing but sponsored content.

I’m not saying, of course, to NEVER accept collaborations; I’m just saying that, in order to keep loyal readers, you need to be choosy. You need to say “no” sometimes. We’ve all gotta eat; I just think it’s smarter in the long run to have a good blend of sponsored and non-sponsored content.

The golden rule for me is: would I spend my own money on this? If I wouldn’t, then I won’t do it.

I Didn’t Care About the Money

I know I’ve written about this story before, but at the very first travel blogging conference I went to, way back in 2013, I thought I was already an established blogger. I mean, I had been blogging for ten years, was getting about a thousand hits on my site a month, and had about 500 followers on each of my respective social media platforms. In my mind, I had succeeded. I wasn’t making money from blogging, nor did I even know that people WERE making money from blogging. I was having fun, I had lots of interested, engaged readers, and I loved what I was doing.

And then I went to TBEX in Toronto.

I don’t want to rag on one particular travel blogging conference, because I think that you get out of a conference what you put into it, and the main point of conferences is just to network anyway (case in point, I went to TravelCon in September to hang out with people I respect and admire; the talks were an added bonus).

But way back then, in 2013, I didn’t know anyone else in blogging save Oneika and a smattering of others. At the very first talk I went to, a man whose name I’ve long forgotten stood up in front of the audience and declared, “Well, let’s face it, we all got into blogging for the money.”

I was floored. What?! People were making money from blogging? And also… what?! That’s why we all apparently got into blogging??

I feel like I can’t scroll Facebook without seeing some sort of Forbes/Culture Trip/Buzzfeed article that says something like, “This girl quit her office job and is now paid to travel the world” or “Meet the guy who’s paid to write about drinking beer around the world” or “Check out these ten Instagrammers who are paid to take pretty photos around the world”. And I mean… great. That’s awesome that so many people are apparently living their dream and creating successful businesses.

But let’s be honest. The whole, “I quit my job to travel and now I make six figures from my blog and YOU CAN TOO” story seems just a little bit too good to be true. Sure, there are people for whom that statement is true. I’d be willing to bet a whole lot of people who claim that are exaggerating, but yeah, there are legitimately people who travel the world and make hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But you know what they say: if it were easy, everyone would do it. And I can tell you that, for every blogger who is travelling the world and making hundreds of thousands of dollars, there are thousands more who never make a cent from their blog.

And hey: that’s OK. It’s OK if you’re not making money from your blog right now. In fact, I’d encourage you to focus on all of the other reasons you love blogging – the writing, the photography, the social media, the networking – because the harsh truth is that not every single blog out there is going to be successful, just like every restaurant that opens can’t be successful nor can every record go platinum. And again: that’s OK.

When I got started, I didn’t know that people made money from blogs for nearly a decade. Instead of dwelling on how utterly clueless I was, I like to dwell on the fact that it’s precisely that reason I’m still here. If I had started a blog solely to make money, I think it wouldn’t have been as good. Maybe I would still have been as passionate about it, but I probably would have focused solely on articles that could potentially get Google clicks, not necessarily ones that I just wanted to write for the hell of it.

I started a blog because I had something to say, and because I wanted to write. I continued it because I loved it. The money and trips that came later? Those were amazing bonuses that eventually turned into a career. But if you want to start a travel blog just to make money or score free trips, I don’t believe that your blog will have the kind of staying power you need in this industry.

It’s totally fine to want to start a blog that will eventually become a full-time career. But in the beginning, there has to be more driving you; perhaps you really want to inspire other women to travel, or you want to share your amazing recipes, or you want to discuss how your disability has affected your life.

As I said earlier: you have to remain true to yourself, and tap into what makes you YOU. In the beginning, half of the battle is making your blog a part of your life and a part of your routine. Half of the battle is falling in love with what you’re creating. Once you do that, sure, think about ways to monetise. But don’t drive yourself crazy thinking you need to make money from the start. Do it because you love it, and because it makes you happy. The rest can be figured out with practice and with time.

But I Knew When to Spend Money on My Blog

Think back to that store I was apparently going to open. Now imagine I said to you, “I’m going to open up a successful store, but I’m not going to spend any money on it.” Again… bonkers.

You’ll notice that none of the points on this list say things like, “I installed this plug-in” or “I learned a lot about web design” because… as if I know how to do any of that stuff. You know what I did? I hired people to help me with the stuff I didn’t know about. As I said earlier, we can’t possibly learn how to do everything on our own. For me, that included the technical and design sides of blogging.

Do you have to drop a ton of money on your site? No, not at all. But hiring someone for a day to help you design an eye-catching logo, or buying a course you’ve heard good things about so that you can teach yourself SEO, or investing a little bit more in a good blog theme that you can customise yourself will never hurt your business.

As they say: sometimes you need to spend money to make money. For years I didn’t do that, and I had an ugly-ass site that didn’t work. I saved up for a few years so that I could finally hire someone to help me out, and I’m super happy with the results. I personally don’t really see the difference between a site that’s totally customised (they run around $6000 USD and up) versus mine (the entire thing, with new theme, custom design, and lots of tech help came to less than a third of that), so it’s not like you have to go all out.

Other ways you might want to spend money on your blog include buying better equipment (I bought a new camera last year and I love it), hiring a virtual assistant, or purchasing courses you want to try (I often wait until there are online sales; Black Friday usually has some great ones). You can also spend a lot of money on conferences; I’ve paid my way to conferences around the world and I’ve never regretted it, because there are always connections to be made and things to learn.

Bottom line: if you do want to take your blog beyond a hobby, you will most likely have to spend a little bit of money. It took me over a decade to realise that, but I now have a blog that runs smoothly, runs quickly, and looks the way I want it to. It’s worth every penny.

And Then I Finally Learned It Was OK to “Sell Out”

I’ve had this thing with “selling out” since I was a teenager. Reality Bites came out when I was 10. Empire Records came out when I was 11. I was primed to believe that in order to create art, you must suffer. True artists lived in lofts and dated Ethan Hawke (that moody, melodramatic bastard). Sell outs raked in the cash and laughed maniacally while dating Ben Stiller and his ties. I mean, seriously. Damn the man indeed. The worst thing you could have said to an artist in the mid-90s, in my very sheltered eyes, was to call them a yuppie.

OK but for real, my entire teenage wardrobe was based off of Winona and Janeane’s clothing in this movie

I mean, I wasn’t about to cut off my ear or anything, but I remember absolutely hating the mentality of so many people at my high school. I went to a notoriously snobby, academic-based private high school, where I loved the English and Music departments (and I was one of approximately three graduates that went on to study the arts in university; the rest went into business, pre-law, or pre-med). I remember getting into a huge argument with the school’s resident douchebag that money can’t buy happiness.

And while I will never fully agree with that guy (I looked him up on Facebook… still a tool), I also recognise that my judgement was a bit off, not to mention coming from a place of privilege. Money doesn’t always have to be evil, especially when it comes as a reward for hard work. For years and years and YEARS (fourteen of them, to be exact), I believed that adding affiliates or advertisements to my blog would tarnish it. Would take away from its message. Would mean it was no longer pure, no longer true. I didn’t want to be a sell out, no matter what. Even though I was already working on paid campaigns and press trips, the thought of having ads on my blog felt entirely wrong.

And then something shifted. It started a couple of years ago, when, in a survey I did about my blog, I asked readers whether or not they noticed the blog was ad-free. Many people said they didn’t. I then asked if readers would mind if I added ads. Only a handful of people said that they would. The majority of people said something along the lines of, “A girl’s got to eat.” That stuck with me.

As you can see, I now have both ads and affiliates on this site. I’ve been earning money from them since about March. And in that time, I’ve been able to pay off my bills, including a trip to Namibia, as well as purchase a new digital piano and adopt a dog. I reiterate: A DOG. A dog, you guys. I can afford to adopt a dog and feed her and take her to obedience training and buy her treats and toys and spoil her rotten because of these ads. OK, it also helps pay my mortgage and my water bill and stuff like that, but you get my drift.

I’m still incredibly thankful that I waited until the right time to monetise my blog. Even if I had wanted to monetise from the start, I couldn’t have; I simply didn’t have the eyes on my blog to make any money from it. My ads are through Mediavine, which requires 25,000 sessions before working with them, so if you’re really keen on monetising, I would make 25,000 sessions your goal. Mediavine are awesome, so I’d definitely recommend them.

As for affiliates, it’s never too early to get started and put some on your blog; I wish I had been more savvy in this regard, although be warned that some programs (like Amazon Associates) require you to make a sale in your first three months (so wait until you believe you could in fact make a sale before placing affiliates).

I think people are a lot more used to ads, affiliates, and sponsored links these days, so I wouldn’t worry about any backlash. At the end of the day, if you have great content, content that’s either useful or entertaining or both, people won’t mind ads or the occasional sponsored post. Take this blog post for example; right now, you’re reading nearly 8,000 (gulp) words that took me approximately five full days to brainstorm, write, and edit. Is it cool if I make some money off of that work? I’d hope you’d say yes.

I Truly, Honestly, Actually, Really Fucking Love My Blog

Regardless of anything else on this list, the thing I did the most “right” was that I never fell out of love with blogging. Despite me taking a lot of breaks from it over the past few years – things like degrees and travels and moving got in the way sometimes – I have always and will always love This Battered Suitcase. Notice how I didn’t say I love “blogging”, because I don’t always love all of the aspects of blogging. To be totally honest, I love writing the best, and hate things like SEO, social media, coding, formatting, editing photos, video… so… yup, basically everything that goes into a blog minus writing.

But this blog has been through so much with me. For more than eight years – I had seven over on Livejournal first – I have used This Battered Suitcase first as a mini-diary, then as a place to record my travels, then as a place to vent about love, life, and everything in between. Somewhere in there it became a business as well as a book idea. Somewhere in there it also convinced tens of thousands of people to follow along every month.

I often think back to my very first blog – look how 2003-2005 it is! – and I think about who read it. I can tell you exactly who read it back then: my mum, my sister, and my best friend during my undergrad degree, Shawna. A few others from the candy store where I worked started reading it as well as a few guys from my favourite comic book store. That’s it. I would say, maximum, my blog’s readership in its first year was ten people.

What I looked like when I first started blogging… yeah… you get it now

But oh man, how I loved it. I loved writing about my day, and scanning my Polaroid photos online (I told you… 2003), and trying to think about new posts and new ideas and how I could take something from my life and turn it into something someone might want to read.

Nothing’s changed, except perhaps that I write a lot more infrequently but write a lot more when I do. I suppose the readership has gone up by a bit, too. But at the end of the day? I love having this space of the Internet to call my own. A quick estimate of how many words I’ve written on this blog alone is, conservatively, 500,000 words. Half a million words. I will forever have those words, those stories, those photos, those memories.

At the end of the day, this blog is part of who I am. It has been with me through multiple countries, homes, jobs, boyfriends, successes, and heartbreaks. It has been my frustration and my salvation, my joy and my doubt. No matter why you start a blog, you have to love it, love it for all of its incredible ups and its many, many downs. If you don’t think you can – or if you think starting a blog is an easy business – I wouldn’t recommend starting a blog or pursuing it as anything other than a fun and possibly short-lived hobby.

Because, trust me, it’s going to be an insane amount of work. It’s going to be lonely sometimes, and frustrating, too. But if you truly love it, you will stick through all of those hours upon hours of trying to figure out how to format something, or how to perfect editing a video, or when your follower count on Instagram remains stagnant for months. You’ll stick through the shitty comments you might get, or the times when you feel like you have nothing to say and oh god, is anyone even reading this thing anymore? You’ll stick with it even when you’re told that nobody reads blogs anymore (they do). You’ll stick with it even though you don’t think you’ll ever make a dollar from it. You’ll stick with it because you want to create, because you want to inspire, because you want to have a space to call your own, too. You’ll stick with it because you truly, honestly, actually, really fucking love your blog.

And as long as you remember that, as long as you remember that you love it, you really can’t do anything wrong when it comes to blogging. Blogging is meant to be creative and different and fluid and FUN. You can read a thousand lists of “how to start a travel blog” or “10 things I did right while blogging” (ahem) and really? None of it matters unless you love what you’re doing, and you’re proud of what you’re creating.

TL;DR: Be yourself, be passionate, never give up, and learn some SEO. Now go out there and give it hell.

Remember to read 15 Years of Travel Blogging: 10 Things I Did Wrong!

Do you have a travel blog? What do you consider your greatest achievements in blogging? 


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Caroline November 12, 2018 - 5:34 pm

This is one of my favourite posts from you ever (and as I am mildly obsessed, this is high praise!) I really want to leave a long comment but it’s very late and I’m up for work in the AM, so I’ll just say that I spat tea out laughing at ‘the fact that he could SPEAK HIS NATIVE LANGUAGE’ and I thought people only pretended to spit drinks out laughing. This is new to me. Thank you. x

Brenna Holeman November 13, 2018 - 12:19 am

Aw, thank you so much, Caroline! So glad that you liked the post that much. And HAH… I’m sorry that you spat tea, but also not sorry?! Thank you for telling me, that cracked me up!

Bea November 13, 2018 - 6:54 am

Hey Brenna,

First of all, it was worth waiting 5 months for this post, I love it so much – but I definitely think I deserve the whiskey, too. 😀
There was one thing that especially strucked me: wanting to be good at everything from writing and photography through marketing and web development. Your lines made me laugh, and also made me realize how ridiculous expectations I have towards myself sometimes. (And yeah, a lot of those advices out there are telling those same things, and I can’t be grateful enough that you don’t iterate them.)

Also, I’ve been to my first blogging conference about a month ago. And one thing that is buzzing in my mind ever since is that so many people seemed to agree that blogs are boring and oldschool these days, because everything is about vlogs. But it’s writing that I love! And reading, too. And yep, here’s the thing: they say few people read books these days, but it’s no true. Maybe no book can become as popular as a movie like Avengers or Star Wars, but people still read books, and a lot of people are passionate about reading. And I’d personally prefer reading a blog post to watching a video. And I hope I’ll never be alone with that.

And to your question at the end of the post… My first thought was: well, yeah, I do have a blog, but my greatest achievement so far is… well, it’s that I love it, nothing else much. Oh, and I can cover the hosting from my ad and affiliate income, that’s not a bad thing either. Is that something to be happy about? Actually, it is. 🙂

Sorry for such a long blah blah, your post left me with lots of thoughts. 😀

Brenna Holeman November 13, 2018 - 11:50 am

Thank you so much for your comment, Bea! And yes, I agree that that is an amazing achievement. To love something you’re working on has to be one of the greatest feelings. 🙂 I also agree with you about reading… I NEVER watch videos on YouTube or follow any vloggers, while I do read a ton (both online and offline). I think people get really wrapped up in the “new” trends but there are still plenty of us who enjoy reading long articles. I wouldn’t have a successful blog if people didn’t 😉

Thanks again, and sending you lots of good vibes for your blog, too!

Susannah November 13, 2018 - 8:39 am

Hey Brenna!
What an awesome recap of your blogging journey! Thanks for mentioning us in this awesome monetization post. We are so happy to play a small part in it and we so appreciate the shoutout.
— Susannah at Mediavine

Brenna Holeman November 13, 2018 - 11:35 am

Thank you so much, Susannah! I actually went back in an added a link to Mediavine – that was one thing I meant to do but forgot in the many (many) edits, ha ha. Thanks for always having my back and being so amazing to work with!

Linda November 13, 2018 - 9:15 am

Brenna Brenna Brenna I have so much to say about this fabulous post that it will require a personal conversation. Let’s just say you nailed it for most art forms – for sure “you can’t be the noun without being the verb”. I was nodding and smiling for the entire read-through, because you aren’t just writing about blogging. This is actually about living, girl. This is inspiring, comforting, entertaining, and motivating. I repeat: you nailed it.

Brenna Holeman November 13, 2018 - 11:50 am

Aw, thank you so much!! I wouldn’t be anywhere without your support and your wisdom. So happy that you enjoyed this 😀

Mike November 13, 2018 - 3:20 pm

You remain a lighthouse of authenticity in a sea of, er whatever the opposite of authenticity is (Fox News? Dan Brown? Brexit?). I have never been good at metaphors and prefer to steal them, so apologies for attempting originality. Anyway.

This post, all of it.

Thank you for remaining you, for as long as I’ve known you. That is no small thing in this weird blogging world. And it’s why I and countless others will never stop dropping by to see what you’ve written next. Ta for all of it.

Brenna Holeman November 14, 2018 - 4:05 pm

Aw, thank you so much, Mike! That really means a lot, especially coming from you. I love reading your work and am so happy to know that we are on this same path in life… trying to create stuff that’s real, stuff that’s good, and stuff that we can be proud of! Ta right back atcha.

Travelling Pixie November 14, 2018 - 3:00 am

Brenna! So happy when I saw your insta story linking to a new blog post. Please don’t leave us hanging for another 5 months!
I absolutely adore your writing and will return to your blog time and time again to see if there are any new posts. I think you are fabulous for the voice you have, your opinions on a wide variety of topics, your gorgeous travel posts and your independent vibe. Than you for staying true to yourself!

Brenna Holeman November 14, 2018 - 4:01 pm

I did have other blog posts up in that five months, though not as many as I would have liked! 😉 Thank you so much for your comment and all of your kind words, I’m so glad that you are enjoying the blog. Your support means so much to me!

Turner November 14, 2018 - 4:52 am

You still seem to have a more down to earth approach, which is refreshing. Most of the professional travel bloggers I encounter (including the biggest ones) seem to have an aversion to admitting just how inundated their sites are with ads and sponsored content. I understand the need for it, but to deny it exists, and attack those who point it out? Makes no sense to me.

Brenna Holeman November 14, 2018 - 4:00 pm

Thanks, Turner!

Haley November 14, 2018 - 12:01 pm

Being true to your self is the most important out of all of them.

Brenna Holeman November 14, 2018 - 4:00 pm

Totally agree! Thanks for the comment, Haley 🙂

Elizabeth November 14, 2018 - 2:19 pm

I was SO nervous about approaching you at TravelCon! I was afraid I’d blurt “I LOVE YOUR BLOG” in your face and then have to run away and hide. I’m so glad you mind meeting fans! It was so nice meeting you in person.

Brenna Holeman November 14, 2018 - 4:02 pm

Aw, it was so nice to meet you, Elizabeth! Thank you so much for coming over to say hello and for all of your support; I appreciate it so much. I’m really glad that we could spend some time hanging out at TravelCon! 🙂

Clazz November 14, 2018 - 4:43 pm

I LOVE this post so much!! You always keep it real. And you’ve absolutely highlighted everything that people love about you and your blog. 🙂 It’s crazy how much travel blogging has changed over the years, and to me there are very few bloggers who can actually say they’ve done all of those things too.

Brenna Holeman November 15, 2018 - 4:19 pm

Thank you so much, Clazz! That’s so kind of you to say. I always try to keep it real… otherwise what’s the point, you know? I have to have fun with it, too 😉 Thanks again – I really appreciate your support!

Tash November 15, 2018 - 3:21 am

“The whole, “I quit my job to travel and now I make six figures from my blog and YOU CAN TOO” story seems just a little bit too good to be true.”

And those are always the ones that try to manipulate you by making you feel like a small-minded, brainwashed looser for choosing any other lifestyle! Maybe I don’t want to live in a van!

It’s like they’re trying to make out that the entire world economy could and should be based on people proving how “free” they are to each other on the Internet.

Brenna Holeman November 15, 2018 - 4:20 pm

Ha ha oh God, how very true. “I’m so free!”… while being chained to a laptop for 16 hours a day. I think a lot of people don’t let on how hard this profession actually is. Thanks a lot for your comment, Tash, and for always being such a great supporter of this blog!

Christine Amorose Merrill November 15, 2018 - 10:25 am

When do we get to meet in person to talk about all of this?!?!? Love love love and feel like we’ve been very much on same page through a lot of this! 🙂

Brenna Holeman November 15, 2018 - 4:18 pm

Um… AGREED. I think the fact that we haven’t actually met in person is kinda ridiculous at this point. I’ve loved your blog from the start, and totally agree that we would be on the same page with these points! xo

Giulia November 15, 2018 - 2:34 pm

As you wrote, there are many downs but when you do achieve something it feels so good! My modest achievements are different kinds, but the thing I like the most is when readers reach out to the person behind the blog. I’ve recently moved to another country (for I job I got thanks to my blog BTW, although it is not related to my “brand” ) and many of them sent me their congratulations, while those who live in my new city invited me for a beer.. It felt so nice and I am extremely grateful for all those messages.
Ps thank you for this post. Really.

Brenna Holeman November 15, 2018 - 4:20 pm

Yes, that is such a great feeling! There really isn’t anything like it. Thank you so much for your support, Giulia, and I wish you all the best with your blog 😀

LC November 18, 2018 - 7:44 am

Great post Brenna. Your blog is definitely something to be proud of and as someone who has read it for years, I think it’s safe to say – it keeps getting better and better. Also, that Italian guy just sounds like such a twerp. You’re definitely well shot of him!

Brenna Holeman November 18, 2018 - 2:59 pm

Aw, thank you so much – and thank you for all your years of continued support! It really means so much to me. Ad yes… the Italian guy was indeed a twerp. Totally on the list of “what was I thinking” dudes, ha ha!

Roobens Fils November 20, 2018 - 11:11 am

Love the article, especially #5! I’m just starting out, but I already noticed a lot more bloggers act like egotistical jerk! Glad to see you’re still grateful to your readers after all those years! Keep up the good work!

Brenna Holeman November 21, 2018 - 6:25 pm

Thank you so much, Roobens! I hope you’re doing well 🙂

Caroline Eubanks November 23, 2018 - 2:42 pm

Congrats, Brenna! I was a reader long before I ever met you and love how true you’ve stayed to your voice. And PS, Reality Bites totally holds up! I watched it recently and can still quote it.

Brenna Holeman November 28, 2018 - 4:28 pm

Aw, thank you so much, Caroline! So nice to see you in Austin 😀

Dee November 28, 2018 - 11:36 am

Whoo.. what a pep talk, and so many wise lessons learned too. I’m saving this for existential crisis days. Thank you <3

Brenna Holeman November 28, 2018 - 4:28 pm

Aw, thank you so much, Dee! That means a lot. 🙂

Rebecca December 16, 2018 - 8:22 pm

Ahhhh, loved reading this post!! I can’t remember when I started reading your blog but I’ve always loved it because you keep sh*t so REAL. I can’t believe you’ve been blogging for 15 years, so incredible – I’m very glad you stuck with it and that you still love it. I have to say I totally agree with your point about the reason you started blogging – for the writing, for the sharing of stories. Nowadays it seems like everyone just thinks they can be a travel blogger and be raking in cash from day 1, and the writing aspect is just an afterthought.

Was great to actually meet you in person at TravelCon! 🙂

Roz Irish Nomads February 4, 2019 - 3:03 pm

Reading this post has been so inspirational for a newbie blogger that’s losing motivation, so thank you. Going to bookmark this and come back to it whenever I need motivation! Love reading your blog.

Maureen February 22, 2019 - 10:59 pm

So there I was in the pits of despair! After two months (Yes. I know ONLY two months but I’m 72 years old so don’t have years and years to get established as a travel blogger) and as I was saying, after two whole months of throwing everything I had at setting up a travel blog website and hours and hours of writing what I hoped would be interesting articles and matching the writing with postcard type photos, learning how to design a website and as for social media and SEO! What a learning curve that has been and what a huge challenge it continues to be! I find that I still have only that wonderful loyal group of friends and family following my blog and facebook posts and some weird and wonderful followers on Instagram and my Pinterest account is an awful shambles, but I don’t seem to be reaching any other keen travelers. How very depressing and then I stumbled across your articles and it has renewed my enthusiasm. I WILL persevere because like you, I love writing and hopefully encouraging others to travel. Thanks so much for sharing. It really is appreciated. Watch this space!


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