Probably when we’re 80 years old, we’ll still look back at 2020 as one of the worst years ever, for a whole host of reasons. It was an especially bad year to be someone who chose travel writing as a vocation.
This global pandemic brought air travel almost to a halt, hotels sat empty, tour companies canceled all tours, cruise ships sat docked, and everything that involved crowds got postponed–including conventions and outdoor music shows. It was tough to be a travel blogger or freelancer.
Suddenly, the “Black Swan” event that few ever thought possible stopped us in our tracks. Bye-bye airline magazines, international travel articles, and anything having to do with phrases like “round-the-world” or “digital nomad.” (A lot of those nomadic bloggers got stuck somewhere or had to go live with their parents while figuring out the next move.)
If you were well-diversified before 2020, as I’m always preaching on here and in my Travel Writing Overdrive course, you probably took a hit but popped back up. If all your income was from one source though, especially a fragile source like posing seductively on Instagram, you probably got walloped. It was also a tough year to specialize in one location if that location was one nobody could visit. Or if you wrote about business travel, airport lounges, and travel hacking with points.
Some people though, it turns out, really thrived, so this post is about them. Some people were in the right place at the right time with an existing angle or a new site launch. It was a great year to be a travel blogger who covers food and cooking. Or national parks. Or camping and RV travel. Those who took action and started a new local site pivoted quickly to adjust to the new reality fared well. They were the definition of Antifragile, thriving on new opportunities in the midst of change and uncertainty.
As for me, the most popular posts on my Latin America travel site’s blog were suddenly all booze-related, so I pivoted to publishing more tequila reviews and rum reviews. My Cheapest Destinations Blog became less about travel, more about moving abroad for a better life. And I suddenly had the time to complete a 150,000-word book–the second edition of A Better Life for Half the Price.
Overall though, I’d just say I survived and made it through a tough year okay. My earnings were decent, but certainly lower than in 2019.
So I tracked down a few bloggers who found a way to turn these 2020 lemons into lemonade. They pivoted and tweaked, focused on the local, and found a way to keep stacking bills from their writing. Here are their travel writing during lockdown stories, in their own words.
Caroline Eubanks – Going Local and Getting Help
The year of 2020 turned out well in the end: my ad revenue has nearly doubled from the beginning of the year. I have a regional travel website about the southern USA and use Mediavine for my ads. I’ve made a modest amount every month since joining in February 2018 and it increases steadily. But when the pandemic began and travel essentially stopped, so did my income.
However, in the past few months, people have started to slowly travel again, including close to home. Much of my traffic is targeted to people that visit destinations within 2-3 hours’ drive of their homes. I also create content based on armchair travel like filming locations and that has done well. I also hired a Pinterest virtual assistant and that has helped with traffic as well.
Maria Haase – Goodbye Europe, Hello Home City
When the USA started shutting down for COVID in March, I had to pivot fast. My main income source, Europeupclose.com, was targeting mature U.S. travelers planning their trips to Europe. I knew that this target market would not be traveling to Europe in 2020 and maybe even beyond that.
As all my travel plans had fallen through as well, I had time to focus on my new niche site about San Diego: SanDiegoExplorer.com. I only had a few articles up before San Diego entered a pretty strict lockdown and had basically no traffic. Since it felt wrong to publish articles on things to do, restaurants, and other things that were currently closed, I focused on inspirational articles, such as “reasons why everyone loves San Diego” or how to plan a San Diego Staycation.
Instead of publishing new posts, I focused on link building and participated in dozens of collaborations for the few articles I had on my site. Building a strong backlink profile to some key articles helped me rank for pretty competitive keywords much faster than I anticipated. During late summer and late fall, when San Diego was getting slowly back to normal, I received so much traffic that I was able to qualify for Mediavine ad network and my San Diego site started to bring in more money than my Europe blog.
My niche blog is set up to target visitors and locals. Looking at the traffic I received during the pandemic and shutdown, I am pretty confident that it will continue to out-earn my Europe blog in the future as well.
Christopher Mitchell – Home Province Growth and Serving the Community
Unless you’ve been living in the forest without internet for the last year (in which case, I envy you in some respects), you’ll have noted that 2020 was indeed a struggle. That being said, not everything crashed and burned and, in some cases, there was some thriving to be had. While the growth of my main site, TravelingMitch, could only be described as stagnant and sluggish, the niche site that I co-founded roughly a year ago, Ultimate Ontario, absolutely boomed. In fact, since the pandemic started, we’ve grown about 3,000%. While that growth may not be sustainable, it’s still clear that local travel is here to stay, and we’re proud to help safely guide Ontarians towards their new favourite spots, since both founders were born here.
We also started a newsletter for Ultimate Ontario that’s taken off, and it’s relatively easy to run since we know our audience so well at this point.
Speaking of newsletters, I also co-founded a blogging newsletter and community called This Week in Blogging. It’s been a huge win to be able to interview, meaningfully collaborate with, and offer giveaways and exclusive deals to bloggers and content creators during a difficult stretch. We feel like we’re just getting started, but, looking back, I’m also happy that it started, and all during a year where it would have been easier than most to just melt into the couch, and keep Netflix running indefinitely.
Tammilee Tilson – Food, the Outdoors, and Cleanup Time
2020 brought a lot of changes to how we run our blog business. We went from traveling 100+ days a year to spending way to much time within the walls of our house. While it was a drastic change to our travel lifestyle it actually benefited our business a lot. We spent the past year getting all of the projects and back end work we have talked about for years actually done.
TammileeTips.com is our oldest site and has been around for over 10 years. This travel halt provided me the opportunity to do a complete site audit of every single post that we had published. I went post by post, not allowing myself to skip around and just deal with the fun posts. We had more than 1,300 posts when I started and each of them received an update or are scheduled to be updated in 2021. Going post by post allowed me to see what was working for our audience and what needed to be tweaked to today’s standard. It is amazing the difference in readers’ expectations of an article in 2020 compared to what was produced in 2010. Through this work I doubled our pageviews and ad revenue in 2020.
Our second site is ParkRangerJohn.com and it focuses on National Park Sites and outdoor recreation, written by my retired park ranger husband. In 2020 we spent time looking at what content we had produced and what we wanted to produce in the future. We also spent time on local/regional road trips that we could safely manage during the pandemic. The events of 2020 forced us to look closer to home for stories and to spend time exploring our home state (Washington) which was amazing and turned out to be great for the site. We also worked on catching up on years of content that we hadn’t quite gotten to because we were on the road all the time.
While 2020 did not go how we planned it to in the beginning of the year, I can say that it turned out amazing for our business. We were able to double our pageviews and ad revenue for both sites while catching up on projects that had been weighing down our business to-do list for longer than I want to admit. This past year was a reminder that the industry and world is constantly evolving and we need to make sure that we are paying attention and adapting to changes instead of sticking our feet in the mud and continuing with what we have always done in the past.
Paula Morgan – Appealing to Hometown Residents Inside Sealed Borders
When the pandemic hit and Australia closed its international borders my niche site on exploring Sydney lost its main source of traffic: visitors from the USA and UK planning vacations to Australia. Almost all the content on the site was aimed at people who were only going to spend a few days or a week in the city. Google always ranked the content well, but I didn’t really write articles that were of much interest to locals, so my traffic skewed 92% offshore.
Pretty quickly I started to produce new content about things to do outdoors, picnic spots, parks, hikes, short drives, and day trips a few hours from the city. I was not sure if I could attract locals, but I figured it was worth a try.
Google recognises my site as an authority on my city, so most articles ranked quickly. Today, 6 months later I have posted 20 locally focussed articles. The result, these posts now almost exclusively make up my top 20 pages and traffic is up 148% on this time last year to over 200k page views per month.
David Nikel – Pivoting on Content for a Single-Country Site
Despite getting my first ever negative royalty statement from Hachette for Q2 of Moon Norway guidebook sales, 2020 was actually my best year ever as traffic on LifeInNorway has absolutely exploded. By mid-November, I had already reached 8.5 million page views for the year, far surpassing my 2019 year-end total. About 1.25 million of those were on just one article (!) which is a coronavirus news article that I’ve kept up to date throughout the year.
I weathered the travel storm because so much of my content is evergreen: culture, Vikings, history, food, language etc. I also had a great bump in the relocation articles in the run-up to the US election.
Late in 2019, I could see I was becoming over-reliant on Mediavine (in a good way as earnings went up), so I took a part-time job with a science institute here in Trondheim, Norway where I live now. I have dropped all freelance work aside from writing for Forbes, so it’s been much easier to manage. I am still reliant on Mediavine on the blog, but the part-time job gives me the balance I was looking for. So, all looking good so far!
In 2021 I want to get back to books and look to do a lot more with video. On an unexpected positive note to end the year, I’ve been offered Third editions of Moon Norway and Moon Oslo. very unexpected timing!
Marco Ferrarese – Focusing on the “Journalist” part of Travel Journalist
Before Covid-19, the majority of my income came from freelancing for travel magazines and websites, and running my own niche blog on Penang Island. It was just starting to get some traction and affiliate income when the pandemic hit.
Most of my clients (Rough Guides, Lonely Planet, DK Eyewitness Travel, and some other of the biggest travel brands in the world) either folded, went on a hiatus, or just stopped accepting pitches.
What worked for me was resourcing to re-angle my ideas through a journalistic approach — something most travel writers never think of doing. I had already learned to diversify by being diligent and asking interesting questions as I traveled on assignment so that I could always spin my straight-up travel narratives into real features. The fact I love the arts, cinema, and music was an advantage even before coronavirus.
It turned out that when most travel media went belly-up, newspapers were still big business, and wanted everything they could find about how Covid-19 was impacting the world.
Since March, when I was locked down in a small village of Peru while on assignment on a guidebook update for Fodor’s, I sold more than 20 pieces to major outlets, covering the effect of the pandemic on different sub-genres of music, different niches of arts, some places where travel bans were lifting, and others where they were becoming harsher.
How did I do it? Simple: by being different and willing to do the work when most were complaining. By opening eyes and ears, scrolling social media with a purpose (read: hunting for leads and stories), and pitching like there was no tomorrow. Many editors still said no, but one in particular liked my work very much, and now still buys several stories from me on a monthly basis. When 90% of travel writers kept complaining about not being able to get work, I probably worked more than usual in 2020. If I had only relied on my blog or my previous contacts, I’d probably be in a very different position right now.
I hope you enjoyed these examples of travel writing during lockdowns and can find some inspiration for your own tweaks and pivots as the restrictions drag on. Eventually, we’ll get back to normal someday, but you can take action before that to succeed.