You've heard about these people. You've gawked at their Instagram photos, read their blogs, and lusted after their glamorous, jet-setting adventures. They're the social media influencers and travel tastemakers who seemingly do nothing more than wander the globe posting pictures, leading the kind of fascinating, fabulous lives most of us only dream about.
And while you suspect they travel for free -- the result of marketing deals cut with the brands whose pics they post -- you've still wondered, how do they do it? What does it take to succeed? And how the hell can you get in on that action?
Well, we had the same questions. Which is why we tracked down some of these very people and straight-up asked them. And while we were able to distill their answers down to eight key tips (that you can absolutely use to launch your own travel career!), there is a TL;DR version: if pimpin' was easy, everybody would be doing it.
Being a professional traveler is a marketing job
Making money through Instagram (and blogging and cross-platform social media strategizing) is a job. That job is marketing. Financially successful marketing requires clients. And you get clients by laying a lot of hard-earned groundwork for yourself (see the "brand brand brand brand" and "network network network network." sections below). You don't just post a photo of a travel destination or hotel or whatever on Instagram and POOF, money automatically appears in your bank account. It takes time to build your brand up -- not to mention build those client relationships -- to the point that a hotel chain might actually want to pay.
There are a lot of different ways to market yourself, and our influencers do a wide range of targeted client work that typically involves specific brands or destinations. Stephanie Be works with boards of tourism, social media agencies, and hospitality and travel brands. Lauren Bath (IG: @laurenepbath) started exclusively working with the Australian tourism industry. Dave and Deb work with American Express Canada. Matthew Long is the editor for a corporate travel blog and also works with a consortium of influencers to put together digital and social media campaigns for destinations and companies. Kirsten Alana is the full-time photographer aboard the Four Seasons Jet.
Kristin Addis knew she could make a living traveling when she got a freelance writing contract worth a whopping $600 a month. "It doesn't sound like much,” she said, “but I was living so frugally and in such cheap countries, it was the piece I needed to keep going. What most people don't realize is it takes a lot of time and investment to make this work, like most entrepreneurial endeavors."
Each client has different needs and expectations. Some will give you total autonomy in your coverage; others will want to review and edit (and review again) every single blog and social media post before it goes out. All of those terms are worked out in contracts. See how official and business-like that all sounds? That's because it is. It's a business. A marketing business. Now repeat that to yourself x1,000.
You have to actually travel to gain valuable travel expertise
You can't just be a travel expert without any travel experience. So, if you're serious, keep your terrible, boring full-time office job for now and travel on weekends; or quit your job and travel for a year to gain the travel experience needed to build your brand.
"Find out what you love about travel, and become an expert on it. Take the chicken buses through Central America or sleep on a wooden plank in the jungle," advise Dave and Deb of The Planet D (IG: @theplanetd). "You have to learn how to travel before you can write about it. Or, you may find that you love to travel but hate documenting it. We traveled for seven years before we started sharing our stories."
Have a plan, man
This is a business. Like any business, you need to have some sort of plan -- a list of goals, a content-and-social-media plan, a growth strategy. "Winging it" is the surest way to fail. And if you don't know where to begin, don't worry. But you've got to figure it out before to you just run off to hotspots in Southeast Asia, thinking it'll pay you off.
"Quite frankly, I didn't know where to start," admits Stephanie Be of TravelBreak.net (IG: @stephbetravel). "My second article went viral, shared almost 70k times on the internet, and it did nothing for me because I didn't know how to 'plug' myself in. It was a wasted opportunity. I already understood social media but what other skills did I need to learn to make this successful? I did a lot of research in e-commerce, affiliate, and monetization models. I learned photography. I learned how to build my own website. I analyzed my strengths and weaknesses, and leveraged what I could do and learned what I couldn't."
Make yourself stand out
Much like food blogs, there are a looooooooooot of travel blogs out there. And most of them are garbage. And most of those that aren't garbage are simply redundant. You need to stand out from the masses with a brand that is unique and identifiably you.
"From the beginning I knew the kind of stories I wanted to tell, and that's what my brand has been based around," says Michael Turtle of Time Travel Turtle (IG: @michaelturtle). "I wrote about the people, the culture, the history of the destinations -- and tried to find new and unusual angles. Unfortunately, it's not enough to be good at social media or blogging these days -- you need to be unique, or different, or special, or unavoidable. The worst thing you can do is try to copy other people because you've seen their success."
Also keep in mind, there is strength in specialization -- while catch-all generic travel sites garner catch-all generic opportunities, having a tightly focused niche can open up countless opportunities with smaller players and often catapult you to "expert" status much quicker than trying (and probably failing) to be everything to everyone.
"Choose a niche and stick with it," advises Kirsten Alana of Aviators & a Camera (IG: @kirstenalana). "These days there are so many people on social media who want to be, or call themselves, 'influencers' that you have to find a way to stick out in order to succeed. You can't just post about travel or fashion or food. You have to specialize. And then once you've figured out what to specialize in, you have to dedicate yourself to it to the point of losing sleep and stressing yourself out."
Network until you can't network anymore. Then keep networking.
You didn't think you could just christen yourself a travel expert and then, poof, just like that it was true, did you? Oh, honey. You need to know the key players in the field -- the other expert bloggers and influencers, the brand ambassadors and the PR reps, the beat photographers and journalists, the travel bureaus and tourism boards. Not only will this get you on their respective radars, but it will also lead to new opportunities -- and that all-important brand-building.
"We collaborated with other travel bloggers on adventures and that really helped raise our profile," Dave and Deb from The Planet D say. "By combining audiences and social media numbers, we could reach a new audience and we could get the attention of sponsors."
Kristin Addis of Be My Travel Muse (IG: @bemytravelmuse) agrees: "At first I started as a guest blogger for the bigger blogs to get my name out there, and I networked like crazy. It was essential to my success."
Instagram is a useful tool, but no one gets by on Instagram alone
You can't just post to Instagram with #alltherighthashtags and expect to make a living. For every Instagram travel account with hundreds of thousands of followers, there's also a highly active blog and a Facebook and a Twitter and a Tumblr and a Vine and a Snapchat...
"Early on we read an article on ProBlogger where he said that you never know what social media site will disappear, so don't put all your eggs in one basket," Dave and Deb from The Planet D recall. "It's important to showcase your content to all social media sites because the audience is different for each one. The people who follow us on Facebook may never look at our Instagram feed. Many people who follow us on Instagram don't check our blog. We can constantly reach a different audience."
Social media is SOCIAL -- you can't just post and be done
"The key to success on Instagram or any social media platform is being social," says Matthew Long of LandLopers (IG: @landlopers). "So many people lose sight of that, but it's key to become a part of the digital community. Comment, like photos, and engage, and in turn others will do the same with you. Of course, always posting excellent photos that tell a story is also important. It's all about the level of engagement."
Brand, brand, brand, and then brand some more
Your life is your brand. There is NOTHING more important than your brand. You must be willing to eat, sleep, and breathe it. If you are not fully committed to constantly -- with every waking minute, with every single heartbeat -- building that brand, this is not the life for you. "Be willing to spend every waking moment on building your social media and website," says Dave and Deb, who spent their first five years blogging every single day.
Getting paid to travel is a job, and like any job, it takes a lot of hard work, over a long period of time. But unlike that soul-sucking desk job most people spend their lives on, traveling on someone else's dime is an honest-to-God dream job. And with enough hard work, it might even be possible.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
Nicole Rupersburg is a recovering blogger enjoying her newfound free time and sanity. She sincerely thanks the folks featured here, as she knows even taking 20 minutes out of their day to answer these questions is a lot to ask. Join her not-at-all-impressive IG following for mostly crappy photos that are posted sporadically with long lag times between them and zero audience engagement at @eatsdrinksandleaves.